Wednesday 1 October 2008

Ben Folds, Way To Normal: enormous disappointment

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.

Poor Regina.

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).

In conclusion

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.


Anonymous said...

You could say the melodies are... way too normal! Hah, see what I did there? See? SEE?!

The postie is bringing my copy today. I haven't been looking forward to it, and your review rather confirms what I'd been thinking from the scraps I'd already heard. Ah well, at least I ordered a Glenn Branca album too. That'll be good.

Anonymous said...

"If you had to say it all with a pop song / couldn't you have at least written a good one?"

Couldn't you indeed, Mr. Folds?

And... did he say "goddamn I look like a Jew" in Errant Dog? And described something as "pretty gay" in Brainwascht?

Even if this is meant to be irony, it's not at all cool.

Major disappointment.

Anonymous said...

Agreed...this album is a major letdown. I know you can do WAY better than this Ben.

Tom Parnell said...

Thanks, both, for the comments. Ally, you use Mr Folds' words against him with panache. Considered a legal career?

(Because, obviously, that's all there is to a legal career.)

It is consolation, anyhow, to know that I am not alone in my underwhelmedness, at least.

Shobhna said...

I've never actually listened to Ben Folds, before his duet with Regina, and that too because I owe my life to the woman. I'm glad that you didn't bash Regina, even while bashing the song. I tend to get all defensive (read: crazy ass).

Admittedly though, not a great album.

Tom Parnell said...

Hi Shobhna,

I'm glad I didn't make you go crazy ass ... And wouldn't dream (on her current form) of bashing Regina.

(Hold on. Does that sound a bit dubious?)

Since writing this review, I've spoken to a couple of people who consider the Regina/Ben duet quite good. But they haven't convinced me.

David said...

Hey Tom.

This isn't going to be a detailed argument, but I'll say it anyway and maybe I'll write a real review in a couple of days.

I finally got around to listening to the album, and you're wrong.

It comes from a real place. I don't know if you've never been there, or if you just don't like it, but it's got a lot of power.

The fact that I can only sing the chorus of 'you don't know me' after a few hours of listening doesn't disturb me. Because the album still needs more time, and I need to look up the lyrics. There's an awful lot to digest and analyse in this album. More anon.

Tom Parnell said...

Hi David,

I'll be very interested to read your review. I'm not sure you'll be able to persuade me that I'm wrong: months (and occasional relistens) down the line, I stand firmly by my sentiments.

I have no doubt, though that it does indeed come from a real place. But, then again, so does the BNP. I just don't happen to like that place and the view from there. But I certainly don't think the album is hollow or insincere. On the contrary. It's way to sincere.

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