Although the idea of a respected author turning his hand to becoming a songwriter may produce a little shudder of embarrassment, the truth is that Nick Hornby and Ben Folds have an awful lot in common.
Both are masters at the bittersweet vignette, expert at sketching believable, relatable characters and telling stories about the situations they find themselves with a healthy dose of pathos. Hornby too has never hidden his passion for music – from every fanboy’s handbook, the brilliant High Fidelity, to last year’s wonderful tale of a reclusive Bob Dylan-esque songwriter, Juliet Naked.
Hornby has written before of his admiration for Ben Folds – an early Ben Folds Five song, Smoke, was featured in his book 31 Songs – and this album was put together in the most modern of ways. Hornby would email Folds the lyrics, who would put them to music, email the song back and the duo would work virtually despite being at opposite ends of the Atlantic.
And so, what could have been an awkward and stilted collaboration actually works like a marriage made in heaven. It helps that Hornby’s obviously a long-term fan of Folds and that these songs have been written for the American – the majority of the tracks here are not too different from Folds’ previous work.
Subjects here range from an oversensitive artist who spends too much time reading critical opinion pieces online (inspiring the wonderful line “some guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know: he’s got his own blog”), a man hacking into his girlfriend’s email account, and most heart-rendingly, a woman looking out over London on New Year’s Eve while her sick son lies in hospital.
it’s the latter that provides Lonely Avenue with its most poignant song, Picture Window. It’s beautifully written, with Hornby perfectly contrasting the excitement and atmosphere on the streets outside while the worried mother laments that “hope is a bastard”. The swelling strings, arranged by the veteran composer Paul Buckmaster, only adds to the sense of heartbreak.
A very different type of character study can be found on Levi Johnston’s Blues, which imagines the day that the former beau of Sarah Palin’s daughter discovered he was about to be thrust into the limelight. Despite a chorus of “I’m a fucking redneck, I live to hang out with my boys”, it’s a remarkably sympathetic portrait, examining how an ordinary teenage boy suddenly became a puppet of a family desperate for power.
Similarly, Doc Pomus is a warts and all sketch of the polio-afflicted songwriter who composed the Ray Charles track from which this album takes its name (“He could never be one of those happy cripples, the kind who’d smile and say that life’s ok”) while Claire’s Ninth tells a more personal, powerful tale of divorced parents trying to celebrate a daughter’s birthday. Considering it’s written by men with six marriages between them, it’s fair to say a dose of self-reflection has been utilised here.
There’s not even as much whimsy as there is usually to be found on a Folds album. Only Saskia Hamilton, a borderline insane ode to the poet of the same name, comes close to being a comedy song, and it’s more than balanced by the gorgeous closer of Belinda, a poignant tale of a one-hit wonder songwriter doomed to repeat the same song over and over again in remembrance of a long gone lover.
It adds up to Folds’ finest record yet, and while nobody would dare suggest that Nick Hornby would give up his day job, a sequel to this fascinating collaboration would be more than welcome.