By Chris Moore:
RATING: 4 / 5 stars
It’s natural to shake your head when an artist of the caliber of Ben Folds undertakes a collaboration. Even if you like the collaborator, the results are typically underwhelming, a document of unique talent and energy being diluted, and perhaps even forced; as a result, the collaboration is more likely to collect dust than play counts.
I’ll admit that I shook my head when I read that Folds would be working with an author, as if his lyrics haven’t always been strong, dating back as far as Ben Folds Five. As if he needed a creative infusion.
Then I read that the author in question was Nick Hornby. That would be Nick Hornby of High Fidelity fame (yes, there is a book that inspired the John Cusack film). If ever there was an author who might be able to lend an intelligent and unfiltered edge to rock music, it is Hornby.
(To clarify, he is not to be confused with adult contemporary pianist Bruce Hornsby, an alliance that would serve little purpose short of adding profanity to “The Way It Is” or perhaps some angry piano to “Mandolin Rain.”)
The title Lonely Avenue is itself an homage of sorts to another writer: Jerome Solon Felder, better known as Doc Pomus. I imagine that many listeners will wonder, as I did, whether the title character of the fourth track is a creation of Hornby’s imagination. (Wikipedia has, once again, provided what I lacked in cultural literacy regarding twentieth century songwriters.) This is a fitting title for the album, particularly considering that the thread tying each song together, with one notable exception, is that of confronting and/or pontificating on the inherent loneliness of the modern human condition.
In many ways, Folds’ music has always adopted the Pomusian attitude described by Hornby as, “He found a way to make his feelings/isolation pay.” Think for a moment about such tracks as “The Last Polka,” “Evaporated,” “Regrets,” “Still Fighting It,” “Trusted,” and “You Don’t Know Me” — just one track apiece from his previous six albums — each an exercise in repaying pain with a musical and lyrical roast aimed at catharsis.
In many ways, this is Folds’ great musical legacy, and perhaps a clue as to how he has remained so popular with college audiences.
Lonely Avenue is thus populated by lost or otherwise isolated souls: a victim of cruel online blogging, a chronically ill inpatient, a social outcast, a nine year old dealing with her parents’ divorce, a man being cheated on, a poetry nerd, and a music star doomed to a Promethean cycle of torment as he is asked nightly to play a hit song he wrote for a woman from whom he has long since separated.
Considering this cast of characters, “From Above” functions as a thesis of sorts, asserting in the chorus that, “It’s so easy from above / You can really see it all / People who belong together / Lost and sad and small / But there’s nothing to be done for them / It doesn’t work that way / Sure, we all have soul mates / But we walk past them every day.” Antithetical to the romantic comedy genre, Folds and Hornby advance the theory that we may never find our “soul mates,” and short of acquiring some sort of metaphorical aerial view of our lives, we may never realize that we could be happier.
Hornby nicely adopts the genre’s device of juxtaposition, placing Tom and Martha, the prototypical disconnected soul mates, not only together in the same song but also together in the same place on numerous occasions throughout their lives. They are never “actually unhappy,” but there is a sense of “a phantom limb, an itch that could never be scratched.” This serves, at least, as some explanation for the human condition; as Folds sings, “And who knows whether that’s how it should be? Maybe our ghosts live right in that vacancy.”
This also functions as a myth of artistic creation, Hornby positing that “Maybe that’s how books get written / Maybe that’s why songs get sung / Maybe we owe the unlucky ones.” To be certain, we owe the synthesis of Lonely Avenue to the unlucky ones, such as those listed above.
What works best on this album is the ebb and flow of tracks, the pensive ballads interspersed between piano rock. Indeed, Lonely Avenue is the most dynamic Folds release since 2001’s Rockin’ the Suburbs, although the individual tracks probably aren’t as strong as those on Songs for Silverman (2005). It’s also arguable that there is not as much of that x factor “soul” as there was on his post-breakup offering Way to Normal (2008).
And yet, Lonely Avenue clearly emerges as the inheritor to the Rockin’ throne, an album comprised of diverse stories and sounds bound together in a cohesive manner.
Where the album suffers is as a result of not knowing when enough is enough. The orchestration seems overdone at times, and some tracks dissolve Folds’ typical predilection for tight numbers. “Picture Window,” for all its heartrending poignancy, pushes this latter line and “Password” probably crosses it, albeit with a killer payoff in the post-“ding!” twist, but it is most notably in “Levi Johnston’s Blues” when Folds stretches the song out for a minute and a half beyond the logical stopping point. The song — whose deceptively crude chorus was actually lifted from Johnston’s Facebook page and brilliantly set to music — borders on anthemic, and I would be willing to concede on the song’s length up to a point (as I enjoy singing along to it more than I should admit here). To be certain, though, the final thirty seconds are inexcusable; the chorus is funny and fun, but enough is enough.
“Levi Johnston’s Blues” is also the aforementioned notable exception, its premise being more about holding up a figure for ridicule than thoughtfully exploring the isolation of an individual.
Lyrically, the album is every bit as strong as one could hope, and musically, Ben Folds is as interesting and impressive as ever (yet another reason to be disinclined to approving of too much orchestration). There are several absolute gems, although “Claire’s Ninth” jumps to the forefront as the perfect specimen of a beautiful song that is beautifully performed and produced. As far as album closers go, “Belinda” is among the best in Folds’ catalog, sounding (as they intended) like “an old hit song” and putting such recent derivative attempts as “Kylie from Connecticut” to shame. Even “Your Dogs,” rough around the edges though it may be, could be held up against any Ben Folds Five-era caustic rocker, just as the tender depths of “Practical Amanda” have not been hinted at since Silverman and have not been reached since Rockin’ deep tracks like “Losing Lisa” and “Carrying Cathy.”
I will not argue that Lonely Avenue is a perfect album; it certainly has its shortcomings, all the more noticeable to fans of Ben Folds’ music. However, there is a danger in always comparing new music to the previous artistic heights of the artist. As such, I cannot in good conscience limit this release to three stars out of my love for past albums; rather, I submit this as a bona fide four star album: an insightful exploration of isolation that is not only solid but also imbued with unique energy by an unmitigated talent.