Review Summary: "Maybe that's why books get written, maybe that's why songs get sung..."
There was one thing that was exceptionally clear when the last few seconds of Way to Normal
, the 2008 effort from Ben Folds, rang out – this guy is in serious need of some new lyrics. Essentially a mid-life crisis with pianos in the background, Way to Normal
was basically Folds having a bit of a whine about his four ex-wives, dodgy self-help gurus and people that cut him off in traffic – and, in little surprise to anyone, Folds was more than willing to blame everyone but himself for his own problems. Mercifully, there's none of that on Lonely Avenue
, Folds' fourth solo album, and it's safe to say that it's got pretty much everything to do with the fact it's not his own lyrics.
For this little experiment, Folds has taken lyrics written by Nick Hornby – yes, he of High Fidelity
and About a Boy
book-writing fame – and put them to his own melodies and compositions. The result is what can best be described as a win-win situation: not only is this Folds' best solo record since 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs
, but it's a solid reminder of the finer qualities of both Folds' composition skills and Hornby's truly engaging writing style.
Like any of Hornby's better novels, Lonely Avenue
is a cast of characters, in every sense of the word. Each of them are replete with quirks and flaws that make them intriguing, entertaining and involving as you peer from the proverbial fourth wall. From a disgruntled writer (“A Working Day”) to an adulterous aging rockstar (“Belinda”), everyone who lives on Lonely Avenue
has a story to tell – whether it's uplifting, darkly humourous, bittersweet or downright depressing, Hornby truly locks you into their lives to the point where you genuinely want to care about each and every one of them.
“Levi Johnston's Blues” tells the story of Bristol Palin's babydaddy with biting satire and the best chorus of the entire album :“I'm a fu
cking redneck/I live to hang out with the boys/Play some hockey, do some fishing and kill some moose.” It's the kind of irony-laden geek-rock humour that Folds has been lacking since the Ben Folds Five days, so to hear him singing something even remotely like it is a breath of fresh air in itself – even if it's technically not his own words. Meanwhile, “Password” is a remarkably clever ballad, in which a jilted lover attempts to seek revenge by attempting to crack their former flame's password by remembering minor details of their life (“your favourite actor is DeNiro/your birthdate's 03/08/83”). The password is never cracked – take from it what you will; but one of the traits of a truly great writer is taking a universal theme and presenting it in a way that perhaps you had never thought of before.
Folds, all the while, is having an absolute blast, taking Hornby's balls (don't be dirty!) and running with them. “Claire's Ninth” - an ode to a daughter in the middle of a messy divorce – is turned into a bright, summery pop tune with Wilson brothers harmonies and simple piano tinkering; while “Doc Pomus” throws together stuttering piano and a jazzy rhythm section that proves that creativity need not necessarily be sacrificed for maturity. Perhaps the finest moment of the two's collaboration, however, comes in the form of “From Above,” a master-stroke of both storytelling and piano-driven pop music. Folds takes a swinging beat, whirring synthesizer and sweet boy-girl harmonies (thanks to Australian pop starlet Kate Miller-Heidke), putting it to Hornby's cautionary tale of a guy and a girl who had always seen one another from afar, yet fate never brought them together. It's rare that one pays such close attention to what might be deceptively perceived as just a catchy tune – each listen generates a clearer understanding, and thus greater realisation of the heartbreaking tale at hand.
isn't necessarily an actual place – it's an extended metaphor for a state of mind. Each of these characters are here for a reason, and it's Folds who brings them to life in the most magnificent of ways. From both a literary and a musical perspective, Lonely Avenue
is a start-to-finish joy – a must for fans of either or both of these gentlemen.