It may have been a full four years since Ben Folds‘ last album Rockin’ The Suburbs, but he’s been anything but slack in the meantime. As well as producing William Shatner‘s extraordinary Has Been album, he’s also recorded a trio of download only EPs and toured incessantly with the likes of Rufus Wainwright and Ben Kweller.
Now comes Songs For Silverman, which moves a mark away from the self consciously ‘wacky’ humour of his earlier days in Ben Folds Five and is probably his most mature work to date. Songs celebrating fatherhood, bemoaning the quick passage of youth and heartfelt tributes to passed on friends can all be found here and although Folds has always covered serious topics (his biggest hit with the Five was about an abortion), Songs For Silverman is his one album which isn’t broken up by a ‘jokey’ track or two.
Opening track Bastard is not, unsurprisingly, a angry angst filled rocker, but instead a bittersweet denouncement of teenagers who wish their lives away. “They get nostalgic about the last 10 years before the last 10 years have passed” Folds points out before reassuring that “It’s ok if you don’t know everything”. Folds has always been a superb piano player and shows his talents wonderfully here, especially towards the song’s end.
Inevitably, the whole album is pretty piano-heavy as you’d expect from Ben Folds. The energy of the old Ben Folds Five material is not as prevalent, but his songwriting skills remain as razor sharp as ever. Landed, probably the most commercial song on the album, mixes a heartbreaking piano riff to a cleverly written lyric about a friend who’s managed to escape from a bad relationship. It’s a wonderful, soaring song, one of those records that make you feel both sad and uplifted at the same time.
Last is another typically great Folds song, this time dedicated to the late Elliott Smith. It teeters a line that could easily dip into mawkishness but Folds expertly manages to avoid this and makes it unbelievably touching (“The songs you wrote got me through a lot/Just wanna tell you that, but it’s too late”). Similarly, Gracie, a song about Folds’ baby daughter, may become clichéd in other hands but ends up tender and affecting thanks to Folds’ heartfelt delivery.
The one track that survives from the internet-only EPs is Give Judy My Notice, but this is one of the less successful tracks here. The original version was a beautiful solo piano ballad but on the album it’s been speeded up and country touches have been added, robbing the song of its poignancy. It’s still a good song but not half as good as the EP version.
Although the album appears to tail off a bit towards the end, with Prison Food being a bit too meandering for a closing track, Songs For Silverman is generally an extremely welcome return for one of the most talented performers around today.