Lonely Avenue

Ben Folds / Nick Hornby

Nonesuch, 2010

http://www.benfolds.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/28/2010

In the entire brief history of writing about rock and roll, has there ever been a writer who failed to dream at least once of the opportunity to write lyrics that an admired artist could then turn into songs?

Yeah, I don’t think so, either.  It just kind of comes with the territory.

Of course, if you’re Nick-freaking-Hornby, one of the wisest, wittiest, and best-selling writers-about-music in that brief history of our peculiar little niche, you might just get the chance to live the dream. Still, it would take a truly fearless musical savant, a smartass of the first order who genuinely doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks, and has already proven he’ll try pretty much anything in the name of musical invention, to attempt such a thing—and Ben “William Shatner is an undiscovered musical genius” Folds is just the guy to pull it off.

So neither courage nor talent are a problem. Compatibility? Well, Hornby and Folds’ sensibilities are certainly aligned—ironic yet insightful, acidic one moment and sentimental the next—but there are still no guarantees when the guy writing the words is used to arranging them on a page rather than matching them to music. You can feel Folds working harder than he would normally need to on some of these tracks, trying to find a melodic pattern that will not just line up with, but embellish and bring to life Hornby’s words. 

But when it works—as on the superb opening duo of “A Working Day” and “Picture Window”—it’s faintly astonishing. Readers familiar with Hornby’s skill at balancing insouciantly self-deprecating humor with wickedly sharp insights into human frailty will literally hear his voice become Folds’. The effect for a fan of both (i.e. someone like me) is sort of like a sci-fi fan sitting down for a summit meeting between Spock and Obi-Wan Kenobi… you want to meet the moment on its own terms, but the little voice in your head just keeps repeating “Wowowowow.”

Opener “A Working Day” is as autobiographical as they come, a bouncy, snarky ode to the writing life, full of self-doubt, recrimination and petty anger at the self-appointed arbiters of taste who fuel them. “Some guy on the ’net thinks I suck / And he should know—he’s got his own blog” goes the capper to this 1:49 firecracker of a song.

Just as you’re finishing up chuckling, “Picture Window” kicks you in the gut with the gorgeously rendered story of a spouse who checks her gravely ill husband into the hospital on New Year’s Eve and struggles not to let the fireworks raise her hopes too much because “You know what hope is? Hope is a bastard / Hope is a liar, a cheat and a tease / Hope comes near you, kick its backside / Hope got no place in days like these.”

Damn.

It’s a tough act to follow… so why not do so with the highly topical gamble “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” in which Hornby extends his notable empathy to the 18-year-old self-described redneck who, unfortunately for any hopes he might have had of a normal life, “knocked up the VP nominee’s daughter.” Like much of Hornby’s best work, the song plays it cool, forgoing the temptation to editorialize in favor of a deadpan matter-of-factness. It’s a novelty, but a surprisingly tender one.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Up next, “Doc Pomus” is a nifty biographical story-song about the wheelchair-bound early ’60s songwriter that nonetheless finds Folds stretching and twisting his melodies to try to match the difficult cadence of Hornby’s words. Folds’ genius as an arranger shows up here (among other places), as he adds a single horn to the chorus that provides exactly the subtle texture needed for maximum emotional impact.

From there, the best of the rest would primarily consist of the three songs with girls’ names in the titles (interesting, that).

“Practical Amanda” is the sort of ode to one’s wonderful mate—Hornby’s, as he states in the liner notes—that you wondered if Folds would ever be capable of writing again after the bitter divorce that preceded the uber-snarky Way To Normal. We don’t know the answer to that yet, but we do know that, with Hornby supplying the words, Folds is still capable of singing his heart out in convincing fashion.

In the case of “Claire’s Ninth,” Hornby indicates in the liner notes that the lyric is not just a story-song, but a lyric lifted from the bones of the first short story he ever sold, which has never been published—though it’s now been sung. It’s about young Claire and her recently-divorced parents trying to make it through her ninth birthday celebration, and it’s both wonderfully perceptive and moving in Hornby’s devastatingly direct way: “I wish you could see / Right inside us / There’s all this stuff / The best of us / That we can’t get to.” And later: “You’re the best of us / The most of us / You’re what we were / You’re all that’s left.” 

Before we get to closer “Belinda,” a few notes on some of the songs that work less well.  “Your Dogs” is a funny bit about the worst neighbor ever, where Hornby’s words again test to the limit Folds’ ability to make these lines sing like lyrics. The lounge-y “Password” tries too hard to be clever; you admire the way Folds solved the puzzle of the lyric, but he needn’t have bothered.  Sometimes it’s a fine line between entertaining and just plain odd, and this time, Hornby ended up on the wrong side of it. 

“From Above” is an interesting case, a sad rumination on the hopelessness of searching for that one soulmate we’ve been trained to believe is out there, that the ever-contrarian Folds gives an adventurous, sassy feel. It feels off to me, but then I’m a romantic at heart. As for “Saskia Hamilton,” writing an entire song about a “euphonious” name is a fairly nutty thing to do, which makes it fitting that Folds gives it a nutty, hyperactive arrangement. But it’s one of those cases where, ironically, the cadence is so awkward that the whole thing ends up more cacophonous than euphonious.

And then “Belinda” arrives to save the day. A wonderful Russian puzzle doll of a composition, it’s a song about a song about a woman the songwriter once loved, and wrote a song for, which turned into his biggest hit, which he’s had to sing every night for decade after decade gone by since he left the woman the song is about. (Hmm… “Layla,” anyone?) The song is that perfect Folds/Hornby balance of self-aware irony and genuine empathy for a guy who is forced to relive the greatest regret of his personal life every night of his professional one.

The 30-second snippet of an alternate take of “Belinda” that follows at the very close does make you wonder how many versions Folds tried out for each of these songs before settling on the final ones. And that’s what this album is really about in the end for me. Lonely Avenue delivers several interesting and worthwhile songs, but at least for me, what’s at least as interesting is the opportunity to observe the creative processes of writer and songwriter colliding before your ears. Something short of a masterpiece, Lonely Avenue is nonetheless a fascinating and often compelling creative odyssey.

Rating: B+

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