Way To Normal

Ben Folds

Epic, 2008


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Ben Folds has only ever been truly consistent in two respects: the high quality of his recorded output, and his commitment to making guitar-less music that nonetheless rocks.  In terms of songwriting, though, from the very beginning his work has bounced between manic explosions of potty-mouthed sarcasm and at-times devastating melancholy, with a plethora of character driven story-songs occupying the emotional middle ground.  In that middle, then, you find songs about people whose lives Folds puts under an often-critical microscope, but who are explicitly not him.  Only when he hit the highest highs or the lowest lows on the emotional Richter scale (“The Luckiest One,” “Brick”) did you get the sense Folds was singing about his own life.

That clear dichotomy between character-driven songs sung by Ben Folds the clever storyteller and cathartic confessionals released from the depths of his being by Ben Folds the man is blurred significantly by his difficult new album Way To Normal

The disc is difficult in two senses.  First, because after moving gradually toward a more mature and serious sound through the course of Rockin’ The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, he has largely reverted on Way To Normal to broadside tirades and acid observations of those around him.  This is an undeniably angry record.

Second, because -- whether accurately or not, and only Folds truly knows -- this album plays like its primary subject is its author.  Yes, there are some tasty character bits, but for a fan there’s simply no ignoring the fact that this is a bracingly bitter and sardonic set of songs from a man who just finished getting divorced. And how does he feel about that?  Quoting the author: “This new album is really about me being free, which is why it feels cathartic and expressive. It’s about me coming back to being myself. I came out of the courthouse, kissed the ground, and walked straight into the studio. I felt like a bottle of champagne that had been shaken for 18 months and popped open in the studio. That’s why this record has so much energy.”  (Source is here.)

Energy, yes.  But it’s a dark energy that infects even Folds’ typically self-deprecating humor.  Opener “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head),” about taking a header off the stage as he greeted the crowd at the start of a show in Hiroshima, feels for the most part like a loose, goofy nod to his idol Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets,” but takes on a sudden edge as he sings about seeing blood on his keyboard.  (Folds, while for the most part my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 denying publicly that the album is about his divorce has also acknowledged that an early working title for the album was Blood On The Keyboard, an obvious nod to Bob Dylan’s epic divorce album Blood On The Tracks.)

“Dr. Yang” comes off at first like another of Folds’ quirky character studies, with the barrelhouse piano reminiscent of his early, raucous Ben Folds Five work, until you realize he’s begging the good doctor to help him figure out how to put the pieces of his train-wrecked life back together.  “The Frown Song” has some fun with synthesizers, which Folds has typically used sparingly, under an angry rant at the same frowning materialistic poseurs he once called out for their “unearned unhappiness.”

Then “You Don’t Know Me” turns the bitter up to ten as Folds and guest Regina Spektor diagram the decline and destruction of a relationship in the starkest of terms: “I wanna ask you / Do you ever sit and wonder / It's so strange / That we could be together for / So long, and never know, never care / What goes on in the other one's head?”  Sharp string accents and smartly arranged duet vocals deliver an atomic payload of recrimination in a gorgeous setting.  “Cologne” is another mid-tempo stunner, mostly piano and strings, about sitting alone in a hotel room realizing it’s over and imagining yourself saying “I will let go if you will let go” to your soon-to-be ex like a pair of love-addicted teenagers trying to say goodbye on the telephone. 

And then we get to the jokey section, where Folds tries to make you laugh with a shambling, snarky ditty about an “Errant Dog” – except he’s already referenced that title in “You Don’t Know Me” as how he thinks his future ex views him.  Ouch.  “Free Coffee” kvetches playfully about the irony of only getting offered free stuff after you’re rich, and then we get “Bitch Went Nuts,” a somewhat obvious four-minute rant that’s light-hearted on the surface but dark and angry underneath, evoking mostly laughter of the uncomfortable variety.  Is his anger just schtick?  And even if it is, is it funny schtick for a guy of Folds’ age and experience?  Follow-up “Brainwascht” is a downright nasty polemic whose target I wouldn’t want to even speculate on; suffice it to say, they got theirs. 

“Effington” is an interesting concoction, a playfully accelerating road song that’s half jokey (“Effington could be a wonderful effing place” etc.) and half wistful (“I want to live in Effington / I want to die there too”) and takes place entirely inside Folds’ imagination as he drives past Effington “making my way to Normal, Illinois” (thus the album title).  Closer “Kylie From Connecticut” is one of his more artful character sketches, and the one song here that feels like it’s a hundred percent fictional.

Way To Normal echoes the loose, raucous style of the Ben Fold Five more often than any of his solo work to date.  But darkness lurks in every corner, making this both one of Folds’ more energetic albums and one of the hardest to listen to.  It’ll be interesting to see how these songs sound in five years, after time has done its work on their context.  Right now, for better or for worse, they veer between raw, sometimes forced humor and even rawer emotions.  A tough yet at times rewarding listen.

Rating: B+

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© 2008 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Epic, and is used for informational purposes only.