Review Summary: It's a long way to the top, if you want to bitch and moan.
Ben Folds is one funny dude.
Covering Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit
” and turning it into a sentimental piano number? Genius! Saying “kiss my arse goodbye” on national Australian morning television before slamming his piano stool into his instrument? Fantastic. Re-recording “Rockin’ the Suburbs” for Over the Hedge
with William Shatner? Fun for the kids; even funnier for those who know the original.
Yep, he really knows how to get a good chuckle out of those with a quirky sense of humour. So when it was revealed that the new songs that had leaked from his forthcoming record, Way to Normal
, were actually fake (save for two songs) and leaked by Folds himself, it was easy to laugh along.
That was, of course, until the real thing came along.
Dropping three years after Folds’ last record, Songs for Silverman
, the direction that the now 42-year-old would be taking on his third solo record was always going to be an uncertainty. In actuality, Folds had found himself distanced from the “punk rock for sissies” with which he had made his name; coming to favour more sentimental and “mature” musical themes which had begun to show prominence with the Five’s last record, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
. In the midst of his third divorce and his fourth marriage, Ben makes an attempt to try and rekindle some of the humour that had given fire to some of his earlier work. In the long run, however, it really does appear that the joke is on him.
Lyrically, it appears that Ben has a lot of things to complain about. “Present the waitress with your allergy card/Tell her all of your problems/And leave no tip at all”, he moans on “The Frown Song”, before continuing to whine about everything from an “errant dog” to “the asshole that pulled into my lane”. For every problem that Ben encounters, he has provided a grand total of zero solutions.
When it comes to his own difficulties with relationships, there is always conveniently someone else to blame: see the lyrics of “You Don’t Know Me”, which features Regina Spektor and is a great song regardless; as well as “Bitch Went Nuts”…which doesn’t and is not. Perhaps it’s a simple case of bitterness, or the fact that perhaps this medium is the only way with which Folds feels he can properly express his anguishes. Regardless, his annoying, precocious tone and tail-chasing approach to his many issues assist the bulk of Way to Normal
as being unnerving and largely unsatisfying.
Perhaps the most insulting thing about Way to Normal
is the fact that the fake leak of the record actually far surpasses the finished product. Take, for example, the leaked and final versions of “Cologne”. The leaked version, now known as the “piano orchestra version”, was a glorious and genuinely wonderful song that emphasised true emotion and a sense of musical integrity that had been missing from Folds’ repertoire for quite some time. All the positives that were found in this version were subsequently (and a little mysteriously) sucked out, along with anything that gave the song life or character, replaced with a lifeless rhythm section and slapped in the middle of Way to Normal
. “Cologne”, as an album track, most certainly characterizes the album’s title- a once beautiful thing has found its way to dull. Boring. Normal.
As you read with distress, mouse in one hand and scratched copy of Whatever and Ever Amen
in the other, please take comfort in the fact that not all hope is lost on this record. Closer “Kylie from Connecticut” shows shocking growth and sincerity after an album that is dominated by disagreeability and arrogance; a swelling ballad with ringing sentiments of family and memories. Interesting musical experiments are present on tracks like “Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hits His Head)” and “Free Coffee” that, at the very least, give some credit to the musical side of things. As with everything she does, Regina Spektor brings a wallop of joy to “You Don’t Know Me” just by having her chirpy, sweet vocals appear…even her recurring line is “You don’t know me at all”. Whilst these are nice little pros to put to one side of the board, one look at the cons list really does show that there is no saving grace for this record.
And so Ben Folds- forty-two, in his fourth marriage and three solo studio albums in –continues on his way to normal. If you happen to pass him (going in the opposite direction, of course), do your best to advise less albums and more fake leaks. We’ll all be happy then.