Ben Folds: Way To Normal
Being a Ben Folds fan isn’t always easy. He’s either considered too smug or too lame, and as a fan, you get lumped right in there with him. Still, his first three albums, recorded with the Ben Folds Five (there were only three of them – oh, those ironic nineties), somehow straddled the great divide between snarky and affecting. Novelty songs such as “Song for the dumped” resonated with every guy who’s been let go. It’s not a very good song, but it has a kind of emotional resonance that comes with tapping into something primal. “Underground” recognized and poked fun of our attempts to eke out an identity via subcultures (you have little trouble imagining Folds with a mullet), and “Brick” is probably the loveliest song written about being a self-absorbed asshole. The reason Folds gets away with it, is that he is not his songs – he’s a good storteller, and I think (hope) he’s smart enough to recognize his own flaws in the way many of his characters don’t.
Yet for all the jokey moments, Folds’ songcraft is also sharp and affecting, because: 1) he’s a supremely gifted tunesmith, with a McCartney-esque way of knocking out a memorable melody, and 2) He writes insightfully about the everyday stuff most normal people know and live. I defy anyone to listen to, say, “Fred Jones, pt 2” and not be moved in the slightest.
But with his second solo effort, “Songs for Silverman”, he seemed to have lost his way. It was a fine album, I suppose: Well-produced and as immaculately arranged as ever. (This is one of Folds’ best tricks – he’s so adept at writing sophisticated arrangements that lesser efforts like “Stan” and “Zak and Sara” seem far better than they really are). But it also felt like a dead end – there was little passion to be found, and the oddball observations and sly humor that gave his songs their heft had somehow fallen by the wayside. Regretfully for the listener, Ben Folds seemed…happy. I can count the times I have listened to “Songs for Silverman” on one hand and still have fingers to spare. (In fairness, in the course of crafting this note, I had to move up to two hands. Maybe it’s a grower…albeit a very slow one.)
So I was eager to hear what his new album was like. Several reviewers has marked it a return to form, which did little to lessen my excitement, even though I should know better. But – and I really hate myself for writing this – when I read that his marriage had ended and that this album largely came out of that, I could sort of believe it.
The album opener, “Hiroshima” (B-b-benny hits his head)”, signals that Folds the smart-aleck is back. Referencing Elton John’s “Benny & the Jets”, “Hiroshima” is the tale of Folds hitting his head as he goes on stage in Japan. “There’s blood on the keyboard…oh my God” he laments, then squirms in full view of his audience: “They’re watching me fall”. It’s a good example of Folds turning fluff into something more: A driving beat, Folds beating the hell of his piano, and loud background vocals that drive the song forward. It’s a fairly propulsive kick-off, and carries through to the next song, “Dr. Yang”, where the heartbreak begins. “Tell her that I love her so / she hurt me more than she could know”.
On the “Frown Song” Folds returns to character studies, writing snarkily about hipsters and their affectations. It’s not unlike something the Fountains of Wayne would come up with. Like “Dr. Yang”, however, it’s not terribly inspired, though, and musically and lyrically plods along.
The fourth song in, and also the first single, is where it really picks up: “You Don’t Know Me” is just a great pop track. A marching beat, sharp strings and interweaving voices smartly drifting back and forth between Folds and Regina Spektor’s guest vocals all add up to a very enticing pop cocktail; lyrically, Folds returns to the self-doubt that always infused his best songs: “Why the fuck would you want me back / Maybe it’s because / you don’t know me at all”.
In the song “Cologne”, he exlores a failing relationship further, as he counts down plaintively: “4…3…2…1…I’m letting you go” and later adds: “I will let you go if you will let me go.” It’s another beatifully scored song, and seems almost like a companion piece to “The Luckiest” from his first solo album (one of the most beautiful love songs), as Folds mentions reading about the astronaut who drove 18 hours to kill her beau, which again sounds like something from a Ben Folds-penned song.
Folds claimed in an interview that “Way To Normal” isn’t a break-up album, but that seems hard to believe. The largely tuneless “Free coffee” does little to dispel those suspicions. “When I came back, I had an ex-wife, kids, boxes full of photographs”…still, it’s mosty a set-up for the spoken word intro to the lovingly titled “Bitch went nuts”. It’s another half-novelty tune, related to “Song for the dumped”. Folds once again uses his piano more as a percussive instrument than actual piano here, and the fuzzed-out bass and drums brings the sound of the early Ben Folds Five back.
The album, I should add, is blissfully short, running a pert 40 minutes. Only one song hits the 5-minute mark, and that is the lovely “Cologne”; the rest are around three and a half minutes. There’s something to be said for economy in pop songs, and Folds doesn’t wear out his welcome. (Roger Joseph Manning Jr.’s two solo efforts are both brilliant, but most of the songs seem to run that extra verse longer than they maybe should.)
Like I said in the beginning, it’s not always easy being a Ben Folds fan. When he finds the right balance between the snarky and the affecting, his songs are near-perfect. Of course, part of his appeal is precisely a willful descent into immaturity; Folds doesn’t pretend to always keep a stiff upper lip and stoically face the empty side of the bed; who truly does? Life hurts sometimes, and we don’t always react as gracefully as we should. Folds is an honest chronicler of our foibles, and while “Way To Normal” isn’t quite the return to form I would have wanted – it’s too uneven overall – but it’s a good stride in the right direction, and one I easily can live with.