Songs For Silverman
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/24/2005
Ben Folds is all growed up.
That's one way to interpret the latest, noticeably more mature offering from the modern master of piano-based rock. Another might be less charitable. Let's face it -- at a certain point after several albums' worth of sustained high quality, audience fear begins to set in. The drop-off is inevitable, goes the theory, so the question with each new outing becomes, is it here?
Hold that thought.
Let's stipulate right up front that Songs For Silverman is demonstrably less aggressive in its approach than past Folds outings, putting a premium on melody and thoughtfulness over Folds' earlier tendencies toward hey-ma-look-at-me barrelhouse piano playing and the occasional potty-mouthed rant. But while the songwriting seems to have grown up a bit, the instrumentation remains classic Folds, built around the piano-bass-drums trio format he used so successfully with the Ben Folds Five, this time with Jared Reynolds (bass & background vocals) and Lindsay Jamieson (drums & background vocals) providing expert backing.
The opening "Bastard" represents everything that's great about Ben Folds, from its rippling melody line and foot-tapping rhythm to its ingenious arrangement (who needs a guitar solo when you can stick a Brian Wilson fantasia of stacked harmonies in its place?). Not to mention a lyric that combines tart wit with a bruising yet compassionate wisdom in inimitable Folds fashion:
"You get smaller as the world gets big The more you know, you know you don't know shit 'The Whiz Man' will never fit you like 'The Whiz Kid' did So why you gotta act like you know when you don't know? It's okay if you don't know everything."
When he's not laying life lessons on you, Folds is perhaps best at dissecting dysfunctional relationships. "You To Thank" is a musical romp through a doomed pairing, full of sardonic verbal bullseyes from the pen of one of the keenest observers of human behavior on the scene. Still, it's just a warm-up for the truly magnificent "I've Landed," which offers a brilliant coda to the soul-sucking nightmare of a relationship that the narrator has just exited from to return home, its rippling melody line mirroring both a scattering of notes from and the hard-earned wisdom of James Taylor's timeless "Fire & Rain." (Favorite lyric: "She liked to push me / And talk me back down / Until I believed I was the crazy one / And in a way I guess I was…")
Speaking of wisdom, Folds gently eviscerates the hollow piety and casual hypocrisies of the Bible Belt in "Jesusland," imagining the title character wandering the streets of middle America in despair, watching as "They drop your name / But no one knows your face / Billboards quoting things you never said / You hang your head and pray / For Jesusland." Take that, Pat Robertson.
As always, Folds balances his harsher judgments with a streak of deeply appealing sincerity. "Gracie" could have been a saccharin disaster, a cloying "my daughter's cute so I'd better write her a song" throwaway. Instead, thanks to its unadorned simplicity and Folds' patented deadpan delivery of an emotionally-charged lyric, "Gracie" is one of this disc's musical triumphs. It is simply one of the most timeless, genuine, unsentimentally affectionate songs ever written by a parent about the way a child crawls inside your soul and makes herself at home.
Even the lesser songs here have things to offer. "Trusted" nails the most basic relationship axiom of all: "If you can't trust / You can't be trusted." "Late" offers another sweet yet unsentimental tribute, this time to departed Folds contemporary Elliott Smith. And "Give Judy My Notice" finds Folds' acid wit at its apex, decorating a lush, harmony-rich arrangement with this classic kiss-off line: "But Judy / I won't be your bitch anymore…" Like the violin and cello on "Jesusland," the steel guitar Folds embellishes "Judy" with adds great depth and warmth to the arrangement.
A final highlight rolls along as the closer "Prison Food" does a slow build over Folds' lyrical piano work and his new trio's terrific harmonies into a middle instrumental section that launches and soars on the fuel of Reynolds' fuzz-bass, Jamieson's crashing fills and repeat guest Buddy Baxter's steel guitar accents. Simply beautiful stuff.
(Note to Folds fans: The deluxe edition of this album is one of the best packages I've ever spent the extra cash on -- a gorgeous flip-book of terrific photos, plus a separate DVD disc that contains one of the most consistently entertaining and insightful "making of" documentaries I've ever seen, plus a bonus disc of choice live cuts and rarities.)
It must be said that if you're picking up Songs For Silverman looking for a sequel to "One Angry Dwarf" or "Army" or even "Rockin' The Suburbs," you're not going to find it. The sharp-tongued humor is there, but Folds has matured with his audience, channeling his inner wiseguy into a kind of curmudgeonly wisdom that's both amusing and often devastatingly on-target.
Oh, and as for that quote-unquote inevitable drop-off in quality? Still waiting for it.