Ben Folds has lost his ear
Not a single song on Way To Normal, released yesterday (in the UK; today in the states) is truly memorable. Not a single chorus could I convincingly sing back to you, right now.
Opener 'Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)' establishes a pattern: it's well-produced, along interesting lines: studio-recorded parts are combined with live crowd sounds and suchlike. But, melodically, it's an emasculated 'Zak and Sara'. The hooks are stunted and malformed. And the humour - normally a strength of BF - is weak. The spoken outro is cringe-inducing.
Buoyant 'Dr Yang' continues this (practically album-wide) trend by which production techniques (this album is inventively, cleverly and extremely skillfully produced) and gimmickry utterly overshadow substance. The fuzzy choruses are hugely energetic and satisfyingly speaker-thrashing. But there's nothing there. The same is true, later, of pacy but empty 'Bitch Went Nuts'.
Diarrhoea in a sieve
Throughout the album, the embarrassment of riches in terms of wouldn't it be cool if we...-type ideas is matched by a very real embarrassment at the paucity of fundamentally strong material. Ben Folds has always been able to take a good song that bit further with a clever, outside-the-box musical device. One of the principal reasons for my intense admiration of Folds is his musical restlessness: his unwillingness to settle merely for a good song, but to add something unexpected and clever to make it great.
Unfortunately, in Way To Normal, he's doing the unexpected and clever things - but without the strong starting points.
So in 'The Frown Song' we have the kind of unprepared, abrupt, song-lifting key-changes that I normally applaud. But here they've nothing to lift. Or, rather, they're lifting a turd. No, wait ... Worse. They're lifting (if you'll pardon the horribly scatological extension of the metaphor) diarrhoea. In a sieve. Elsewhere, we have keyboard solos that cleverly doff a hat to multiple musical eras and genres in the space of 16 bars; hillbilly-parodying vocals; ring-modulated, crispily-synthesised piano-based beats (in 'Free Coffee') ... But what for?
'You Don't Know me', the single and duet with Regina Spektor is notable only insofar as it wastes to an almost criminal extent her vocal talents. I by no means object to the extremely poppy production and stylings of the song. BF is free, in my book, to go as pop as he likes. He has done it well before. But not here. The song is bland, featureless, bereft of direction. All the things that good pop has in abundance.
And let's talk lyrics
At times, listening to this album for the first time, I worried about Ben. He is perilously close to the deeply unbecoming: bitterness, slathering rhetoric, borderline misogyny. We don't want to hear lyrics that sound as though they're written in recriminatory tones with a particular individual in mind. It's not funny; it's embarrassing, and discomfitting. It puts me off big-style.
Cologne is affecting, lyrically. But only relative to the uninspired majority of these songs. On another BF album, it'd hardly be a standout track, as it is here: definitely sub-Jesusland (a song I didn't even much like, at the time). The chorus is pretty insipid, and, again, the melodies are not memorable. I'd challenge anyone to sing back more than a fragment of any of these songs after one or two listens.
Similarly, 'Kylie From Conneticut' is lovely, as a last track. But in the same way as a B-side might be lovely. Because you weren't expecting it. It is profoundly disappointing that a BF-ballad-by-numbers song such as this should be my favourite track on an album. At least it seems to be lyrically empathetic, rather than sneering.
What else? 'Errant Dog' is just rubbish. An unbelievably annoying song that also manages to murder a metaphor that Folds used far more effectively on the EP track 'Dog' (which is, incidentally, better than anything on this album, by leagues).
Folds has always been a musical shapeshifter, an ironist, an imitator and a satirist. He has always had fingers in many musical genrepies. And has happily juxtaposed styles with a charismatic, ironising wink. I know this is the kind of thing that some people find intrinsically annoying (as Fieldvole will perhaps attest) - but I've tended to feel that BF carries it off because he has always backed it up with strong musical techniques and, above all, songwriting skills.
On this album, that third leg of the stool (no link-in with my earlier scatological punning intended) - the songwriting - has disappeared.