You know the story about the boy who cried wolf? When the wolf finally attacked him, no one came to the rescue because they thought he was faking? Let’s flip that theory a little bit and apply it to humor. If you’re known for being the class clown, people are at the very least going to be taken aback when you decide that you’ve come to a time when you need to be serious. That’s what happened to singer/songwriter/pianist Ben Folds when he released “Songs for Silverman” a couple of years back. After a decade of delivering bratty humor and sarcasm (applied to very real feelings and emotions), Silverman was a bit of a left turn-and it was stone cold sober. Ben’s fans didn’t really know what to do with the album, and it was a bit of a disappointment. At the very least (for people like me) it took a really long time to get into.
So, the folks who loved “Silverman” are going to see “Way To Normal” (Folds’ third official solo album) as a regression. The people who were turned off by “Silverman”‘s pointed lack of humor are going to see it as a return to form. I’m not sure how I see it. Folds remains a ridiculously gifted storyteller and songwriter-certainly the only person who can deliver a tune with a Broadway-ready melody and follow it with a bit of snotty punk attitude. Even though some of his lyrics are unnecessarily vulgar in that “South Park” GROW UP ALREADY!! kind of way that high-minded folks (like I pretend to be sometimes) won’t appreciate, they’re all very real, even though they might be played for laughs. On this album, Folds hints at the reasons behind the dissolution of his third marriage, his lack of comfort with his celebrity, and on a song or two, is downright goofy for the sake of being goofy.
“Hiroshima (B-B-B Benny Hit His Head)” is a hilarious retelling of a story in which Ben wiped out on stage in Japan. As you may infer from the title, the song owes a fairly large debt to Elton John’s “Bennie & the Jets”, including the piped-up crowd noise that appears on the chorus. Now, how many songwriters do you know that can make great songs about busting their ass on stage? On the other side of the coin, there’s “Cologne”, which sounds like Ben making peace with the dissolution of his marriage (in the chorus) and wondering if the relationship is worth salvaging (in the verses). It’s a complex web of emotions that anyone who’s fallen in and out of love will relate to even as they chuckle at the verse about the diaper-wearing astronaut lady.
Ben revisits his divorce with a far bouncier tune on “You Don’t Know Me”, which features some well-placed support vocals from Regina Spektor. “Dr. Yang” is a bit too silly on the lyrical side, but finds Folds pounding the piano in super-caffeinated fashion and delivering a cool, feedback-drenched chorus. “Free Coffee” is another winner. On this track, Folds ponders the fact that people who have more than enough money to afford things (like coffee) get them for free, while when he was flat broke and struggling, he had to pay for everything. As interesting as the song itself is its’ almost dance-y arrangement, which as Folds explained when I saw him in concert a couple weeks back, was achieved by placing a distortion pedal and a tin of Altoids inside his piano. This trick led to a curiously strong song! (OK, that was terrible).
On this relatively short album, there are a handful of miscues. “The Frown Song” finds Ben on autopilot, and it’s one of the few instances where I feel like he just threw in a couple of F-bombs unnecessarily. “Brainwascht” is another song that just didn’t do anything for me, although it’s a little harder to pinpoint why. Thankfully, the album has more songs like the sad “Kylie from Connecticut” (in which Ben tells the story of a woman in a shell of a marriage who takes messages for her husband’s mistress) and the Broadway-style “Effington”, which ties in to the album’s title (actually, I’m thinking the entire album follows a slightly autobiographical linear thread). You’ll giggle at lines like “Effington is a wonderful effing place”, even as your marvel as Folds’ tunefulness.
It’s gotta be hard to turn yourself into a “serious” songwriter when your fans (especially those who are just looking for the quick four-letter word and don’t dig deeper into his lyrics) are waiting for the punchline. There are definitely times when some of the 42-year old Folds’ lyrics make me roll my eyes in disbelief, but if anyone can forgive for immaturity, it should be me. “Way to Normal” is yet another solid entry into Folds’ canon and should be enjoyed equally by fans of Folds’ raunchy, funny stuff and those who are aware that Folds is much more than some guy who uses the B-word a lot in his songs.