Review Summary: When the artist becomes a mirror, whether they want to be or not.
The first question that comes to mind: Did Ben Folds have fun writing this？
When sitting behind the piano, the singer-songwriting is a wizard at crafting tantalizing, addictive melodies that entrench themselves far inside the mind’s interior. For the most part, this style adopts a sort of playful disposition wherein every passage emerges as if it’s tap-dancing across the keys, like a bunch of cartoon musical notes decked out in top hats and tuxedos performing in a kick line. Yet behind that polished veneer, half-nerdy half-everyman vocal delivery and comedic attitude lies something sinister, or at the very least something that doesn’t feel right. The fact is, Ben loves toying with lyrical content that makes me constantly second guess how exactly I’m supposed to react, or even how Mr. Folds himself felt when he put these words onto paper and that paper into a studio. One of the best cuts off of Rockin’ the Suburbs
explodes instantly with a dazzling piano riff, the tempo bouncing at an upbeat pace that practically demands foot-tapping appreciation as percussion rolls underneath to build anticipation. This story of Sara without an ‘H’ and Zac without a ‘C’ is innocent enough, the chorus sporting a delightful ‘la-la-la’ refrain that drifts by like grazing a fluffy cloud—then the second verse enters, where Sara’s hearing “voices from inside” because she had the ability to see the future, but she tries not to pay attention to those voices “because at home they got her smacked.” Promptly afterwards, Ben races his fingers up and down his instrument of choice and launches back into those ‘la-la-las’ without acknowledging what was just said or even appearing to care. It’s moments like these that are so goddamn confusing: am I supposed to be sad？ Should I be nodding my head to the rhythm？ Do I need to call child protective services？ Gimme a clue here, Ben!
And these instances are not simply relegated to “Zac and Sara” as has been previously mentioned. Interspersed between tales of adolescence, tales to adolescents, and musings about adulthood—all of these portrayed through dialogue suiting a straightforward, honest teenager penning poetry in the back of an English classroom—are a slew of tracks that, by all accounts, seem emotionally conflicted. When Ben approaches the piano, he demonstrates a knack for lighthearted tones that are all capable of individually standing out, the majority of them exhibiting time signatures tailored perfectly to fit an afternoon walk, or jog, or a relaxing time bathing in the sun at the local park. It’s outwardly rather modest, but the result is tightly, cleanly arranged to ensure that no complaints can readily be made; what the listener receives is just really effective at being wonderful pop-rock tunes spearheaded by keys. However, it’s difficult to maintain this imagery when the album in question features “Carrying Cathy,” which checks off all the boxes in terms of Mr. Folds’ success guide to piano melodies, yet simultaneously detailing the narrative of someone’s relationship to a girl (spoilers: it’s Cathy) who seems to be locked in depression, thus forcing people to help carry her on to a degree. One day, she disappears from the speaker’s life (or jumps out a window—still disappearing, I suppose), only for the third verse to state the following: “With her father and brothers we're all at the funeral / Carrying a box through the rain / Then somebody says that it's always been this way.” So Cathy up and killed herself. I nod my head to this number at times then have to remind myself about the included lyrics booklet and then reevaluate my feelings, which at this point are in a flux.
So then comes the next question: Do I even have fun listening to this？
No matter how hard I may try, I cannot invade the mind of Ben Folds and determine his intentions. Sure, interviews may provide assistance, but for all anyone knows it could all be a front. This just leaves me to look at, well, me. I insert Rockin’ the Suburbs
into the car, the bedroom jukebox, the phone, the CD player underneath the television set, any conversation about favorite albums, the list goes on. There’s a quality here that must make it worthy of the acclaim it attracts though it doesn’t seem obvious. It’s undeniable that the LP presented here is stocked full of entertaining ditties adept at producing goofy grins. Take the hilariously self-aware title track that relishes in poking fun at average white, middle-class woes, every minute dilemma—a rude S.O.B. infiltrating a McDonald’s line, for example—magnified in its intensity. Folds teases the audience with a cheesy synth inclusion and injecting a small dosage of nu-metal to round off the parody. Better yet is the anthemic break-up song “Gone,” powerful guitars driving the central piano beat along as Ben airs out grievances regarding a former girlfriend who is now, as one might expect from the title, gone and moved on to someone else. The chorus seamlessly rides the momentum of preceding sentences, swelling into a climax that turns the tune into an irresistible sing-along opportunity. Part of what makes all the entries on this LP easy to connect to is not solely due to accessibility, instead a consequence of relatable storytelling that speaks without necessarily filtering through a poetic lens; “Still Fighting It,” another creation worthy of anthem designation, might as well be considered as a mozzarella treasure trove in the same vein. I mean, the reprise revolves around Shakespearian brilliance ala “It sucks to grow up / And everybody does.” Somehow, the way Ben performs precludes this from becoming uncomfortably cliché, rather making the audience ingratiated with the ‘ordinary, kinda dorky’ persona he emits.
Once again, I have to rope back around to lyrics elsewhere, which do not paint the prettiest picture. Even with “Zac and Sara” and “Carrying Cathy” off the table, the listener is forced to reckon with the veritable black sheep that is “Fred Jones Part 2.” Here above anywhere else does the record take such a downward spiral into existential crisis to frightening levels. The tale woven here depicts aged newspaper worker Fred, who is recently laid off despite years of company loyalty. He does not receive goodbyes or is even noticed—hell, “no one is left here who knows his first name” as Ben admits—since this is all just another day; life will continue moving “like a runaway train / Where the passengers change,” but no difference is really made. Having time to kill, Mr. Jones attempts to trace paintings on projection slides only to realize he can’t even do that right, the track reaching an ultimatum as Ben sings in a layered harmony and the piano pounds in insanity, those delicate fingers morphing into terrifying giants imposing their will upon unfortunate ears: “Yeah, and all of these bastards / Have taken his place / He's forgotten but not yet gone.” The atmosphere, normally ambiguous per prior assessment, dismisses all pretense and embraces a somber ambiance that finds greater achievements in killing my smiles rather than producing them, feeding into anxieties rather than comforting them, spilling my guts out on lonely late-night drives rather than holding me together. If “Not the Same” is included into calculations, namely its “’Til someone died on the waterslide” line, then the body count of Rockin’ the Suburbs
is 3—Cathy shook hands with concrete, some random person had a regrettable slip into heaven, Fred Jones is dead inside and I think I went with him, so we can both count as ½ a point.
All of that measured, I’m left with a final question: How am I supposed
to feel listening to this？
On one hand, Mr. Folds is jamming away in the corner of a brightly-lit dance club, a glowing, toothy beam adorning his face as one of those beautifully subtle piano expressions wanders about the room, its potent catchy quality intermingled with its ballerina-esque elegance. The other hand is cupped around my ear desperately trying to reconcile with the words that are currently conquering consciousness. This could all be extremely pointless should Ben have been joking the whole time and I’m basically not ‘in’ on the punchline; he’d probably be laughing at the amount of redundant analysis dedicated towards lyrics meant to be nothing more nor less than simple tales. I’m inclined to believe—I try so hard to believe, possibly for my own personal sake—that Rockin’ the Suburbs
means something more, something grander in scope despite its poppy façade. That final clue could be those rare instances where names are not spoken, whether they be real or not to begin with, and arrangements are stripped back, revealing that smiling dude behind the keys is actually a nervous, insecure fellow in a manner not separate from anyone else in the vicinity. It’s when the gentle chords of “The Luckiest” introduce themselves, their refined sonic cloak descending as a comfortable mist of nostalgia. Ben is exposed here and more honest than anywhere else on the album, his light voice assuming an almost fragile characteristic as he opens up: “I don't get many things right the first time / In fact, I am told that a lot.” Yet this flaw, and that flaw, or any flaws that may exist, and all those mistakes that may have populated life do not prevent Ben from getting “here”—to a love that feels so deeply rooted it must be destiny. Holding true to those endearing, awkward lyrics dominating the album, this connection is abridged in a verse that Mr. Folds utters genuinely, adding a tangible heartfelt touch to the song:
“Next door, there's an old man who lived to his 90's
And one day, passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days
And passed away
I'm sorry, I know that's a strange way
To tell you that I know we belong”
I suppose the inevitable conclusion is that there really is no way to view Rockin’ the Suburbs
from a definite perspective. One answer cannot be supplied to cover the full emotional spectrum covered throughout the record’s duration; the album is precisely what the listener asks for it to be. A portion like “The Luckiest” could turn into one of those ‘our songs’: the theme to a relationship, a symbol to a bond whose strength challenges the boundary of eternity. It might circle about as an affirmation of pure feeling that still has that same power even when that feeling isn’t there anymore, the memory lingering as a lasting testament to an unmatched bliss. The rousing composition of “Fired,” by the same token, could be best suited for a night out with friends as you meander about—not really going anywhere, nor knowing where to go or maybe where the journey began to begin with (that’s a sentence)—and yell out that final “mother***er!” together as a triumphant signal of youthful defiance. This is all still understood as a tentatively unintentional construct of the mind rather than of the artist, who may be beside themselves at how much thought someone could have wasted on a handful of pop tunes. To that, I can essentially repeat faithfully what was just said: this collection embodies the listener, the listener is the collection. There have been many days where I exemplify that existentialist dread of an unemployed writer or the concern of a friend worrying about the mental health of their other. Yet Rockin’ the Suburbs
never fully changes from being the personal reflection it consistently displays, through the good and bad, miserable and glorious, and everything in between.