Ben Folds is, to my mind, one of the great unheralded musical prodigies of his generation. Anyone who’s ever heard any of his records, or seen one of his excellent live shows, will tell you that he’s an astonishing pianist who can play the instrument with either the gentle delicacy of a master at a Mozart recital or the ferocity of a kid jamming out to Metallica in his bedroom. However, on his first solo record, 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs, he played nearly every instrument, and has played in bands as a bassist, guitarist, drummer, pianist and singer.
His early work with the incomparable Ben Folds Five – music he wryly described as ‘punk rock for sissies’ – was a huge influence on many bands since and led him to be respected by musical contemporaries in the 1990s.
Folds’ fluency on the piano and his unique voice were the centrepiece of the group and, in the decade since the Five’s unfortunate demise, these two attributes remain at the centre of all the music Folds produces. His latest album Lonely Avenue certainly plays to his already sizeable following, combining the easy wit of earlier records with moments of poignancy: it’s a trick very few artists could pull off but one which has become a staple of Folds records.
What makes this album – released in October of 2010 – so interesting is the way it came about. English novelist Nick Hornby e-mailed Folds some sets of lyrics to which Folds, a master of composition, set music. Hornby wrote in his book 31 Songs that Ben Folds Five’s ‘Smoke’ was one of his favourite songs of all time, and apparently this admiration has not waned over the years.
The combination of a great author and a terrific musician might seem a match made in heaven to many, but Lonely Avenue, despite moments of brilliance, never really catches fire. The main question that cropped up in my mind while listening was why Folds had actually decided to sing someone else’s lyrics in the first place. Not to disparage against Nick Hornby, he is a fine author and I’ve read a few of his books, but Folds is capable of writing some magnificent songs himself and has done many times in the past – the immeasurable tragedy he paints in the haunting ‘Brick’, the transcendental nature of fatherhood he discusses in ‘Still Fighting It’, the out-and-out joy of ‘Kate’ – so when Lonely Avenue does fall short, which it does on a couple of occasions, it’s all the easier to question with this query lingering in your mind.
That said, there are a few very good songs to be found. ‘Picture Window’ is a rail against a personal tragedy with a pained chorus that Folds would be proud of: “You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard”. ‘Practical Amanda’ is a delicate, intimate portrait and ‘Claire’s Ninth’ has a lovely central concept, told from the perspective of a young girl whose parents are undergoing a separation.
However, what the record lacks is a real showstopper, and the stumbles – the frivolous ‘Your Dogs’, the frankly quite terrible ‘Saskia Hamilton’ – are harder to excuse when there isn’t a Folds classic waiting in the wings to lift your spirits. On the occasions where older Folds albums stutter, there’s a track like the wonderful ‘The Luckiest’ on Rockin’ The Suburbs to restore and bolster your faith in Folds. There is no instantly indispensable tune to be found on Lonely Avenue, despite its brief dalliances with brilliance, and in the end we wish that Folds would release another solo album. Certainly an interesting collaboration, and an even more interesting idea, but only truly essential for those who are already Folds fans.
Best tracks: ‘Picture Window’, ‘Practical Amanda’, ‘Doc Pomus’.
If you like this, you’ll also like: Whatever and Ever Amen – Ben Folds Five, Stunt – Barenaked Ladies.