Review Summary: "If you can't draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall."
After years of trying out the whole introspective piano-man character, Ben Folds slowly started drifting back to the more irreverent and playful sounds of his earlier records. Way to Normal and Lonely Avenue both saw Folds yearning for the days of his youth, and it only seemed natural that a revival of the group that he spent his most irreverent and playful days would be his next move. Folds, however, has changed much more than his band mates; he can’t quite give up the style he’s been playing since 2001 and his band-mates can’t quite meet him. Sledge and Jessee are as busy as ever and we still hear the fuzzy bass and jazz drumming that helped create that self-described “punk rock for sissies” found most predominantly on the first two Five records, but Ben is still doing his best Regina Spektor impersonation, resulting in an album that doesn’t really quite work, and is often a disappointment simply for what it could have been. In other words, this goes exactly about as well as you would have expected it would.
Album opener “Erase Me,” serves as a perfect example of exactly what is wrong with this album. The quarter note-punctuating rhythms are completely expected considering such songs as “Hiroshima”, but the minor key and chromaticism sound like an unintentional parody of rainy day angst, and the occasional moments of Ben Folds Five’s lounge influence feel like tacked on shout outs to the fans, as if to say, “See! We’re still the same band we always were! Here’s some jazz drumming and a vocal harmony!” It’s a song that feels like it could have been good, but isn’t, that ideas that once went well together are not going well together at all, and in the end just makes you cock your head and grind your teeth. “Draw a Crowd,” is similarly off-putting. It’s catchy, entertaining, and up-beat in the kind of way that “Your Redneck Past” was from Reinhold Messner, but has such a bizarrely awful chorus that the whole thing is rendered unlistenable after the first time it’s heard. Granted, there’s something oddly poignant about Folds singing “If you’re feeling small and you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall.”
In fact, slightly off-putting seems to be the general aura of the record. “Sky High” is the worst kind of smoky 80s ballad that even Sting would cringe at, complete with airy synth and a plucky bass-line. “On Being Frank” meanwhile delves deep into the world of kitsch strings and disco rhythms, which is strange considering how good Folds used to be at arranging string. “Carrying Cathy” was remarkably haunting, and the beautiful “Selfless, Cold, and Composed” remains one of the best songs from Whatever and Ever, Amen. The strangest thing about the album is not that it’s of poor quality – that was almost a given, but that it’s bad in new and unexpected ways, that they would be indulging in the kinds of sounds that they previously mocked. Maybe that’s the joke, but if it is it’s not a very good one.
Fortunately, all three of these guys haven’t lost anything in the way of technical proficiency, and it seems as if, against their better judgment, they’ve allowed a few genuinely good moments slip onto the album. On “Do it Anyway”, Folds plays with the frantic business that made his piano work endearing in the first place, not to mention it contains the kind of energy that so much of the album lacks. Otherwise terrible songs will often have incredible solo. The album’s final two tracks are similarly evocative and human, and serve as a reminder that it was always that distinctly human element that made the humor of Folds’s earlier so funny and endearing in the first place.
Ending like that may have been the worst thing they could have done, as it may very well fill its listeners with the false kind of hope that those moments were the “real” spirit of the revival, and those aforementioned painful and awkward moments were just Folds’s detox. But in truth, there was really no way to win with this. Like most returns to form, it’s almost impossible to abandon the direction you’ve been going or reclaim the exact mood that made the songs you make when you’re 20 sound special. This is a chance for middle aged men to tour and pretend like they’re relevant. It’s not a terrible album by all accounts, but it’s not nearly what these three guys are capable of.