Ben Folds aims at normal, cracks open head in Japan
Ben Folds may have named his third solo LP Way To Normal, but the North Carolina native doesn’t have any such destination in mind.
If you listen closely, you can see he’s on the highway to hell, or at least to “Effington,” his own version of The Truman Show
. More movie set than true home, that song—and the entire album—reaffirms the long-suspected idea that Folds is more comfortable on the margins of art, respectability and society, a perpetual outsider reveling in his own eccentricities, from naming his former trio Ben Folds Five to mounting a project with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller and dubbing it “The Bens” to producing an album for William Shatner to palling around with “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Instead, these 12 songs are more of an anthropological study of
aberrant human behavior, idiosyncratic news stories and bizarre
chapters of the musician’s own autobiography, all observed with the
same unstinting absurdist eye as J.D. Salinger when he penned Nine Stories
more than 50 years ago. Folds’ “Kylie From Connecticut” suffers from
the same thwarted dreams, disillusionment and frozen acceptance as the
highball-drinking heroines in Salinger’s “Uncle Wiggily In
Connecticut,” and the song conveys that same sense of being the
prisoner of your own wrong choices.
But this doesn’t seem to
be the case for Folds. Married four times, he seems obsessed with
dissecting gender relations on this album, and understanding the
physics of love in the bombastic and comically misogynistic “Bitch Went
Nuts” and “You Don’t Know Me,” his fragile, fractured duet with Regina
Spektor. The latter, Way To Normal’s standout track, delves
into a couple’s intimacy problems using a he said/she said dynamic, but
with a twist. Like those frothy Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies of
yore, the song shows how a little bit of mystery works for a
relationship. Almost high-concept musical theater, it’s both
lighthearted and profound, a blast of cold water on your expectations.
returns to the theme on two-song suite “Before Cologne” and “Cologne,”
but with much different results. It’s a travelogue of a relationship in
the last stages of decay, and it exquisitely captures imaginary
conversations with an absent lover, and the small claustrophobic
details that stay with you as watch your own heart break. Woven into
the middle of the song—like a movie within a movie—is the story of NASA
astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak, who drove from Houston to Orlando to murder
a romantic rival. Folds takes poetic license with some of the details,
but still conveys the idea of romantic obsession and addiction.
spending so much time on heavy subject matter, Folds changes things up
and fixates on a runaway dog. While doing nothing to coax back his
lover in “Cologne,” he’s desperate to find his pooch in “Errant Dog,”
which is clearly a stand-in for his lost love. “He’s my everything, he
means the world to me,” he sings. “He’s my hopes and dreams / Fungible
property / Sometimes I wonder why I put up with his shit / If I could I
would become a lesbian.” Frantic, hysterical and a little unhinged,
this seems like a return to some of the comic antics of his albums with
Ben Folds Five, capturing the best of what he often does in his shows,
but rarely on record.
The same is true of “Hiroshima (BBB
Benny Hit His Head)” the story of Folds falling into the orchestra pit
during a concert in Japan. What should be a punch line became an
excursion into his psyche, almost like Being John Malkovich,
except Folds invites you in, going through each excruciating detail of
his mishap, from the sheer embarrassment to the blood on his keyboards
as he continued the show, to his X-rays. “You wanna see what’s in my
head / Check it out ‘cause / Got pictures of what’s in my head.” An
homage to Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” the song humanizes the
often acerbic, cerebral musician, but more than that, it ends up as an
unexpected anthem, complete with the rousing football-chant chorus.
the tumble in Japan jarred something loose in Folds’ fecund brain. This
is the first album where his artistry seems fully realized, both in
terms of subject matter and performance. Witty, balanced and highly
Listen to Ben Folds' "Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head)" from Way To Normal: