He’s a busy bee, is Ben Folds. As well as producing and playing on the magnificent Amanda Palmer solo album, he’s collaborating with author and longtime fan Nick Hornby, getting his old band Ben Folds Five back together for a recent one-off gig and has even found time to release a bunch of new songs and leak them online as an inside joke with his fans.
And inbetween all this activity, he’s even managed to record a new album, the follow-up to the somewhat subdued Songs For Silverman. If that album saw the dawning of a new ‘mature’ Folds, Way To Normal sees the North Carolina native going back to his roots – full of upbeat and literate songs that manage to be both funny and sad at the same time. All interspersed with Folds’ remarkable piano playing.
Yet, with all the irony that’s always been his stock-in trade, this is very much a break-up album. Tracks like You Don’t Know Me, Bitch Went Nuts, Cologne and Kylie From Connecticut all address the effects of a relationship break-up from the amusing (Bitch Went Nuts describes a woman who stabs basketball and photoshops Folds face “onto the body of every boy who’s done her wrong”) to the remarkably poignant and sad (Cologne in particular is a real heartbreaker).
It starts, however, with none other than an Elton John pastiche. Hiroshima tells the story of Folds falling offstage in Japan and splitting his head open, but the familiar piano chords and subtitle of B-B-Benny Hit His Head all allude to one of Sir Elt’s biggest ’70s hits. It’s not as whimsical as it may first appear though – like most of Folds’ songs there’s acres of insecurity underneath, as exemplified by the line “They’re watching me fall…”.
A very abrupt ending leads into Dr Yang, an exhilarating old-school Folds piano riff hiding some pretty morose lyrics about a man seeking advice from a doctor about a broken heart (“she says she cannot cope with my neurosis, I could always hurt myself, doctor, she knows this”). As with a lot of Folds’ songs it takes some time to discover the darkness underneath as the overall first impression is so upbeat.
Perhaps best of all though is You Don’t Know Me, a wonderful duet with Regina Spektor which sees the two songwriters playing verbal tennis while describing exactly how little two supposedly intimate people know each other. Spektor really adds layers of depths to the track, and it shows just how well Folds works with female singer/songwriters – see his collaborations with Amanda Palmer and Aimee Mann for further proof of this.
Yet it wouldn’t be a Ben Folds album without a hefty dollop of irony. Some people may find the title of Bitch Went Nuts offensive, but you’d have to be extremely uptight not to smile at lyrics which conjure up images of Folds’ scorned ex-girfriends turning up in droves at his house with “torches, scores, scores and scores to settle with themselves”. It’s almost a spiritual cousin of the old Ben Folds Five classic Song For The Dumped.
Another highlight is the stately ballad of the aforementioned Cologne, which sees Folds reading a funny story about an astronaut and wishing he could share it with his ex – the sad, poignant chorus of “4-3-2-1, I’m letting you go” is enough to break the sturdiest of hearts. The similarly paced Kylie From Connecticut makes for a wonderful album closer, while Free Coffee, a meditation on how fame can change someone shows how different Folds is from his contemporaries – while most people would be complaining about lack of privacy or the paparazzi, Folds is content to be bemused about the offer of free coffee.
Way To Normal probably won’t propel Folds to world stardom, but you get the impression that he’s pretty happy to remain on the fringes of cultdom. While this may not be his finest solo moment (that honour still belongs to his debut, Rockin’ The Suburbs), if you want some intelligent, moving and addictive pop songs, you can’t go far wrong with Mr Folds.