Ben Folds Five was known for its quirky, sometimes humorous piano-based rock in the late 1990's. However, all good things come to an end, and this happened to the Five. Enter Ben Folds's solo debut album. Still largely piano-based, Folds puts forward a strong, albiet slightly different album from what a Five fan would expect. Gone are the silly songs about school and Uncle Walter. In their place, Folds offers a much more serious take on music than we are used to from him. Granted, his humor is still there, but now serious topics take the place of others he had in the past.
First off, this album is much different from the Ben Folds Five albums released in the past. Where those albums had a raw quality and almost a jazzy sound (thanks to the trio setup they used at the time), this record leans almost towards straight pop-rock. Folds shows his underappreciated musical skill by playing all of the instruments (except guitar on one track and some string overdubs) a la Foo Fighters
, Dave Grohl's debut post-Nirvana album. In general, Suburbs
is a darker sounding album than one would expect from Mr. Folds. Themes of growing old, changing personalities, lost loves, and suicide permeate the album. Now for more on how the songs sound:
Opening with Annie Waits
, Folds's signature heavy piano work is evident immediately. A catchy, poignantly humorous song about unrequited love provides a great glimpse into Ben's new sound. The drums at the beginning sound as if they're sampled, and we actually hear a guitar for part of the song. Next is the blazing triplet riff of Zak and Sara
. Folds drops us into a straight-up rock song while providing a great character sketch of two young lovers caught in the past. Later on in the verse, piano gives way to sinthy sounding keys (think "Jane" on Reinhold Messner
After this upbeat song, we are dropped into the deep, reflective Still Fighting It
. Starting with piano, acoustic guitar, and Ben's light tenor voice, the song slowly builds to an anthemic chorus. A very reflective song, this deals with growing up and getting older. Once through here, we go to the first of two very angry songs on the album, Gone
. Starting immediatly with heavy drums, piano, and slightly fuzzed bass, Folds croons about getting over a past love. Everything calms down for the bridge, a delicate duet with his wife...Then, there's a buildup right into another heavy verse.
Next, we are treated to Ben Folds and a piano in the sad ballad Fred Jones, Part 2
. The level of emotion in this piece is paramount, and perfectly fits with the mood of a man growing too old in a world eager to move on and get past his generation. A string solo caps out this piece nicely, along with Ben harmonizing with himself for the last verse and chorus. After this, we are plunged into the spiralling Ascent of Stan
. Lashing out at a hypocritical man, the piano and synths perfectly fit a man living in a whirlwind type of life where he becomes all that he's hated (Becoming 'the man' after years of disdaining authority).
Lost love and an inability to express yourself are apparant on Losing Lisa
, a more upbeat song than the last few we've had. Great, driving piano and huge drum sound fills this song out nicely. However, this just sets up for my favorite track on the album, Carrying Cathy
. Never before had Ben written a song with such a dark topic as emotional problems and suicide. A lonely piano riff drives this song, as Folds sings his most meaningful lyrics to date (Her room window was hing like a painting/She worried it might come alive/She stared for hours/And so obsessed was I/and self absorbed that I didn't see/That she was crying). For an artist usually singing about much lighter things, Ben singing about the denial a loved one faces with a family member's suicide is amazingly done. Also easy to overlook are the strings. At one point, they get very harshly dissonant, then fall back into place. To end, the same lonely piano plays its riff and fades out.
Ben does a good job showing his frustrated side with Not the Same
. Angry towards someone changing themselves to conform, Folds pounds out his frustration with a heavy, driving piano riff. Then the song explodes into an anthemic chorus and bridge with huge bass, drums, and background vocals. As he screams "You're not the same!" during the bridge, you can feel his frustration right to your core. His humor shows through on the next track, the first single, Rockin' the Suburbs
. Though a great stand-alone song, this doesn't fit the general mood of the album, as it seems too obvious an attempt at some comic relief. This also shows the most prominent use of guitar on the album with a nice, crunchy riff driving much of the song. Folds presents a nice, creative take on suburban life here, but I feel it would be better suited for an album by the Five.
Angry again, Folds next presents to us Fired
, a rocker with a nice, pulsing backbone. Almost vaguely swing-like at times, this is seen from the point of view of someone being released or downsized. The gradual, subtle buildup parallels the internal rage of the protagonist almost perfectly. After this straightforward piece, we are presented with a tender lovesong, The Luckiest
. Similar to "Boxing" from the S/T debut, this is just Ben and the piano. Ben provides some interesting metaphors and signs of love that make this a truly beautiful way to end this album. Sort of like being told a series of bad news, then realizing that in the end, though, everything is all okay.
Rockin' the Suburbs
is definitely a departure from Ben Folds's earlier work both musically and lyrically. He proves he can tackle very tough subjects yet still retain his sense of humor throughout. While at times the album may seem depressing, there is not a single truly weak song on the album. Some of my highest recommendations go to Still Fignting it
, Carrying Cathy
, and Not the Same
. If you did not like Ben Folds Five, this album is different enough for you to try a listen. If you are a fan of the Five, though, it is still similar enough for you to still like it.
Overall, this is an excellent album with catchy, introspective songs. If you like more complex music structure, this may not be for you, but if you're a fan of standard pop-rock, I highly recommend picking this album up.