Ben Folds: Way To Normal
Ben Folds’ last album, Song For Silverman was, on reflection, a little staid. It’s not a bad album by any stretch, but it’s basically 11 plodding piano ballads.
There’s a couple of slightly rockier bits but it never really takes off. Any of the songs are good individually, some are phenomenal, but the album as a whole drags a fair bit. It was reflective of a Folds that had settled down with a wife and family and was writing serious songs about serious issues for serious people. Of course, were you to see Folds live during this period you’d have seen a rockier, upbeat crazy bloke doing his regular weird stuff that wasn’t reflected in Songs For Silverman at all. While not a bad album it seemed to be ‘targeted’ at a ‘demographic’ rather than truly representing the artist.
On to Way To Normal. Folds has got divorced and remarried and put out something far more upbeat and fun than Silverman. While he’s stated in interviews that this record isn’t about his divorce in particular, it’s certainly a break-up record.
Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head)
This is the quintessential Folds funny song. It’s basically a verbatim discussion of him falling off the stage and getting concussion. Piano, bass, drums, silly lyrics, crowd noises… it’s a bit of simple fun but has a brilliantly catchy central refrain.
In the days of Ben Folds Five, Robert Sledge was all about the fuzzy bass. Perhaps it’s for that reason that Folds has mostly avoided that particular motif in his solo career, but it’s back and bassist Jared Reynolds seems to be having as much fun with it as Sledge ever did. Many have used that link to suggest this is a very Ben Folds Five track stylistically, but I don’t think it is. It’s actually done in a style that we’ve never really heard Folds use before. Check out the bit about 55 seconds in where Folds pretty much switches to an entirely different vocal style and suddenly there’s a whole new set of possibilities for future songs.
The Frown Song
This one returns to one of Folds’ favoured themes of social and class differences. It’s a brilliant lyric and plays about synths and harmonies and all sorts.
You Don’t Know Me
A duet with Regina Specktor which is the second track on the album that sounds like nothing else Folds has ever released. The melody is actually carried by the strings here while the piano is relegated to an accompaniment, and the lyrics are all done in a very dis-jointed style that Ben probably picked up from Shatner.
It’s also the first of those songs about failing relationships and break-ups.
The mid-album 6 minute epic. A slow, heart-breaking ballad, it’d be at home on Songs For Silverman but has so much more impact here where it’s one of only two. The whole thing builds slowly, with the strings slowly becoming more prominent until they just soar through at the end and conspire with lyrics to break your heart into pieces.
A bit of fun about a dog that ran off. Or it’s about a man that consistently cheats on a woman that can’t bear to leave him. It’s short and silly regardless so doesn’t really matter.
The third of the truly unique tracks on the album. Folds stuck a bunch of metal tins inside his piano and ran it through a distortion pedal and ended up with something that bears a strange resemblance to a C64 synth. Again, it’s about social division: famous people that can afford it anyway get free stuff but poor people that need it don’t. The lyrics have been criticised for being a bit ‘simple’ and just describing every day life: “Called in sick one day, stepped out my front door, squinted up at the sky…”.
But that’s the point. Folds and other famous people are just normal people like us that do normal things like sending text messages and eating ice cream. But he gets treated differently because of fame.
It’s not actually one of my favourites from the album, it seems to be missing something but it’s certainly interesting.
Bitch Went Nuts
Another break-up track dealing with the after-effects of a separation and the way friends end up taking sides. One of my favourites.
Leading on nicely from the previous track, this deals with someone who took sides and wrote a song about it. The album’s lyrical tour-de-force “There’s something wrong with being copied on a memo / In the form of a bad country demo” and plenty of others I won’t spoil. Musically it’s vintage Folds, much like previous track.
Again, one of those perfect Folds piano-pop songs, that reflects on getting away from your life and doing something else entirely. And just in case you were wondering where it was this is the track with the fast piano solo in it…
Kylie From Connecticut
A ballad about a break-up that becomes inevitable. Somewhat resembles Carrying Cathy musically, not my favourite track to be frank as it drags on a bit too long and its a shame the album didn’t have a stronger closer, but it’s a decent track.
What truly stands out about the album (besides the reflections on break-ups and the fuzzy bass) are how many new, original and interesting songs and ideas there are in this. This is the first album Folds recorded with his band in the studio, and it seems that the inevitable mixing in of their musical interests and stylistic quirks has given us the most interesting and original Folds album since Reinhold Messner.
Downsides: well Folds has developed a strange tendency to go “unh” and “uh” at various points on the record and it just feels a bit weird. He’s been doing it live for a while but he’s really over-doing the grunting on this one. Still it can worked into a fun drinking game.
Apart from that this is a truly brilliant album and hints at so many possible new musical directions that Mr Folds could take now I can’t can’t wait to see what he does next.
Way To Normal is released in stores on Monday 29th September