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Reviewed by David Medsker
It took Ben Folds’ new album, Way to Normal, to thrust this writer headlong into cold, hard reality on where he actually stands. And the truth is that he has been apologizing in one form or another for Folds as far back as 1997.
This is not to say that Folds’ work between 1997 and the present has been poor; it’s just been lacking in one form or another. Whatever and Ever Amen, the sophomore and breakthrough album by Ben Folds Five, was equal parts brilliant and maddening, weighed down by the moroseness that would dominate the band’s final album, 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. (Strangely, I loved that album. Go figure.) Rockin’ the Suburbs, Folds’ solo debut, had its moments of genius (“Fired,” “Losing Lisa,” the title track) and a fair amount of chaff to go with it (“Fred Jones, Pt. 2,” “Not the Same”), while 2005’s Songs for Silverman should carry the subtitle The Unauthorized Biography of Debbie Downer, since it dealt primarily with the crumbling of his third (!) marriage. In other words, it’s been nearly a decade since Folds gave me something I truly loved. For others – Jason Thompson, please step forward – it’s been even longer, as in: everything Folds has done since Ben Folds Five’s awesome 1995 debut has been a letdown.
The correction begins here, and it will seem harsh to some. After all, Way to Normal is the closest Folds has come to realizing his potential in years, keeping his maudlin tendencies in check while taking his sense of humor out for a long-overdue walk. The problem is that the songs feel forced, as if Folds himself is acutely aware of the problem and is trying as hard as he can to recapture the magic of his glory days. The album isn’t bad – it’s just…off.
Take, for example, the leadoff track “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head),” with its gargantuan Elton John piano riff (the song’s subtitle is not a coincidence) and ‘oh-oh, oh-oh’ singalong vocal. It has all of the elements of a rafter-shaking concert staple, even imitating the supposed in-concert feel of “Benny and the Jets.” The problem is that it feels 100% contrived, and the subject matter – about the time Ben fell on stage and gave himself a concussion – is not what one would call relatable. “Bitch Went Nuts” began as a fake track that Folds intentionally leaked as a joke for his fans, but he liked it so much that he put it on the final record. You can see its appeal, in a “Song for the Dumped” kind of way, but Folds is 41 now. Is he still running afoul of crazy women, or is this one of those Trent Reznor moments where he’s forsaking his personal and artistic growth in order to give the fans what they “want”?
The back half of “Kylie from Connecticut” is fascinating in its use of “Madman Across the Water”-style strings. Is this the ripple effect of stripping the “Levon”-style strings out of Silverman track “Landed”? (If you’ve ever heard the stringed version, you know what a big mistake that was.) The album’s highlight, though, is first single “You Don’t Know Me,” a duet with Regina Spektor that serves as Folds’ latest kiss-off to an ex. Now let’s go back to that third paragraph for a second: Folds is on his fourth marriage, and while one of them inspired the most radio-friendly unit shifter of his career, it’s tough to listen with a sympathetic ear. After three failed marriages, we’re pretty sure it’s you, not them.
Ben Folds is dangerously close to where the Barenaked Ladies found themselves earlier in the decade. After racking up a series of moderately successful albums (while developing a fiercely loyal live following), BNL woke up one day to the realization that half of their fan base was gone. The reason? Cloying only goes so far, and eventually, the joke wasn’t funny anymore. Way to Normal doesn’t feel like those records BNL made at the end of their tenure with Reprise, but it doesn’t feel like a genuine Ben Folds album, either. It feels like what Folds thought people wanted from a Ben Folds album. Uh oh.