I’ve been meaning to write something for a couple weeks about Ben Folds’s newest album, Way To Normal, which I’ve been listening to quite a bit recently. It’s a frustrating album in a lot of ways but not, I think, without moments of greatness. (Or inanity, for that matter.)
My impression of Folds’s solo career is that he has spent too much time listening to what people say about him. Rockin’ the Suburbs, his 2001 debut as a solo artist, is undoubtedly the strongest work that he’s released since the breakup of Ben Folds Five. But it was criticized by a number of publications for being too jokey, too young, too glib. “Amid the pomp are some gorgeous tunes…about growing older, and their irony-free tone suggests that Folds may someday yet be able to get through an entire album without smirking,” said The Rolling Stone, and the suggestion that Folds’s humor was keeping him from making a “real” album was echoed elsewhere. “The funny songs might get the airplay and create the sales, but it’s the songs with emotional depth that induce repeated listens,” wrote Andrew Gilstrap, in PopMatters.
So Folds went and recorded Songs for Silverman, which, for all its faults, can reasonably be described as having a fair amount of emotional depth and maturity. But he went too far, didn’t include any songs that were fun, and the abuse he took from the music world was ten times worse than anything said about Rockin’ The Suburbs. “Folds may as well have dubbed his second “TJ Hooker”-free solo album Wuss and Wussier,” crowed Pitchfork, “Forget Rockin’ the Suburbs; the new Folds can barely rock an infant to sleep, though at one point he tries.” The Onion A.V. Club was a little more polite, but their words may have cut Folds even deeper: “Folds remains tasteful to a fault, and while Songs For Silverman is arguably his most mature work to date it’s almost indisputably his most middle-aged album, which isn’t an entirely positive development.”
So now Folds gives us Way to Normal, an album almost overflowing with energy and crass humor, and in his quest to just make the album everybody wants, he’s lost sight of the fine line he walked on releases like Forever and Ever Amen and Rockin’ The Suburbs. The result is an album that is wildly uneven: sometimes brilliant; sometimes insulting; and sometimes just dumb.
From a musical standpoint, Folds has rarely been better. This is a thrillingly full album, crammed full of weird blips, strings, synthesizers, and loops. Whatever the lyrical merits of any particular song might be, each is exceedingly well composed. The album opener, “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)”, manages to be at once a story about when Folds fell off the stage in Japan, a send-up of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets”, and (in this critic’s humble opinion) a reaction to the critical response to Songs For Silverman. But it’s the second song, “Dr. Yang”, that kicks the album into gear. The song has lyrics, sure, but I can’t tell you what they are, just that they’re not very important. But the music – driving, screaming, squelching, and with an accomplished piano break in the middle – just rocks.
But it’s on the third song that Folds shows what makes so much of Way to Normal so off-putting. “The Frown Song” is a snide, snarky ode to upper-middle class existence. “Or do you remember how we managed before?” Folds sings. “We could afford regular nervous breakdowns / Or before the Anthropologie store / was erected on an Indian burial ground.” What’s so remarkable about the song is Folds’s complete lack of compassion for its character. There’s no real characterization here, just mean-spirited sarcasm. The same spirit pervades most of the other weak songs on the album, too: “Errant Dog”, “Free Coffee”, “Brainwascht”, and “Bitch Went Nuts”.
“Bitch Went Nuts” has been the focal point for the harshest criticism of the album, and given its outrageous crassness, Folds seems to have been almost hoping for that response. But what dooms the song is not that it is overly crude (as some have claimed) nor that it is misogynistic (which it isn’t, really). The problem with the song is that it’s simply not funny. “The bitch went nuts / she stabbed my basketball / and the speakers to my stereo,” Folds sings, and are we really supposed to have sympathy for him here? The song is aiming to be a sort of updated version of “Song for the Dumped”, but five albums, eleven years, and four marriages later, the suspicion arises that the problem lies not with the girls but with the man himself. And so the Folds on display in “Bitch Went Nuts” just looks like an asshole.
A few months before the album came out, Folds leaked a fake version of the album onto the internet, and that version of “Bitch Went Nuts” actually is really funny. The storyline there runs somewhat differently: an up-and-coming lawyer takes his new girlfriend to dinner at his boss’s house – only to discover that she’s hopelessly liberal. “I’ll never be a partner at this rate,” he laments, “not with Jane fucking Fonda Jr. as my date.”
But then, Folds has always been better about writing other people than himself. With only a few exceptions, his best songs (“Fred Jones Pt. 2″, “Alice Childress”, “Kate”, “Army”, “Losing Lisa”) have been character studies. That style of songwriting is largely absent on Way to Normal, but the large exception to that is the album’s last – and best- song, “Kylie From Connecticut”. The song is about an older woman who suspects her husband is having an affair (with the titular Kylie), but can’t figure out what to do about it. “She believes there are things you shouldn’t know about / when you’ve been married for thirty five years.” And she even admits that she doesn’t love her husband anymore. “Her heart belongs to a man she hasn’t seen / since that magical night when the children were young.” The song is set atop one of the most beautiful piano melodies Folds has ever written, and the breakdown in the middle – in which the piano mingles with some strings in an aimless but powerful manner – proves that Folds is also a talented string arranger. (For more evidence of this, go listen to the Folds-produced Who Killed Amanda Palmer, which came out late last year.) “Kylie From Connecticut” is what Songs for Silverman was trying to be: mature, insightful, affecting, and musically strong.
There are a couple of other tracks well worth checking out, like “Effington”, “You Don’t Know Me”, and “Cologne”. Which brings the good song: bad song ratio to about 6:5. Which is a better ratio than some people, obviously, but still nothing to brag about, and the worse tracks on Way to Normal will definitely leave a bad taste in your mouth. But for his sake as well as ours, I hope Folds isn’t reading this, or anything else written about the album. Bad things seem to happen when he tries to take people’s advice.