** This is the third in a five part series of music reviews, counting down from the #5 to the #1 albums of the decade, 2000-2009. On January 2nd, 2010, the #1 album will be revealed, along with the complete Weekend Review picks for the Top Thirty Albums of the Decade. **
By Chris Moore:
RATING: 5/5 stars
Ben Folds’ 2001 solo debut Rockin’ The Suburbs is one of those rare albums that thoughtfully balances all-seeing self-confidence and heartbreaking vulnerability.
It is also one of those albums that has gone largely unappreciated.
At the time of its release — September 11, 2001 to be exact — the album received moderate reviews and modest numbers on the album and singles charts. Folds’ subsequent records have also been dismissed by many sources, holding steady around the three star mark from major reviewers like Rolling Stone. Still, his more recent work has scored higher on the charts, with Songs For Silverman earning the “mature record” stamp and Way to Normal garnering an inordinate amount of attention from the media, as well as the distinction as Folds’ highest debut on the Billboard charts.
Say what you will about his other work — and Songs for Silverman is a truly great album — but he has never matched the sound, feel, and overall conceptual focus that was present throughout Rockin’ the Suburbs. Listen after listen, the latter reveals itself to be an exploration of that most basic of all human conditions: loneliness.
Whether intentionally or not, Folds is making statements, track by track, about what it means to confront the truth that, in the end, we’re all alone. His contemporary landscaping lends itself to this task quite well, as he sets his songs in cubicle-dominated office buildings, behind the doors of extravagant corporate offices, at funerals, and in any number of mundane suburban settings frequented by aimless and/or lost young people.
This was an album I could relate to as a young college student, beginning to think about the world around me and the career — the life — ahead of me.
Likewise, nearly a decade later, this is an album that not only has meaning for me as an adult, but that I also expect will speak to me in decades to come when I find myself, as Michael Stipe would say, staring down the barrel of the middle distance.
“Annie Waits” is the ideal opening track, establishing mood with the tale of solitary Annie, waiting on a call that never comes, expectantly watching the cars driving past and wishing she was alone. Alone, there would be no expectation, there would be no disappointment. There would be no vulnerability.
The second track moves quickly into the territory of the disenfranchised, featuring two young people, uniquely spelled names and all, screaming out loud to a world that’s not listening. Zak is the more introverted of the two, choosing to plunk away at guitars, while Sara is rattled by the dreary banality, choosing instead to verbally lash out against a car salesman. Even Sara has to snap out of it in the end, clapping at the end of her song.
“Still Fighting It” is certainly one of the most personal songs on the album, written as a direct statement to his son. While expressing the pure joy of fatherhood, Folds also notes that “everybody knows it hurts to grow up,” recalling that “it was pain, sunny days and rain; I knew you’d feel the same things…”
The next four tracks can be viewed as various takes on separation and loneliness. It begins with “Gone,” a rant against an ex-lover who moved on too quickly, and concludes with “Losing Lisa,” the lament of a lover uncertain of what he’s done to merit a break-up.
The interceding tracks introduce the two sides of a coin all too often stamped out by a contemporary, corporate world that values profit over personality, hubris over humanity. “Fred Jones Part 2″ describes the final day of a man who has spent twenty-five years working for a newspaper at which he has remained utterly anonymous. “No one is left here that knows his first name,” Folds sings. He continues, “Life barrels on like a runaway train where the passengers change; they don’t change anything. You get off, someone else can get on.” And so Mr. Jones goes quietly into that good night, ostensibly to conclude a life lived without meaning or true substance.
In other words, a life that many modern-day office workers are in danger of living.
“The Ascent of Stan” an equal and opposite life journey. Stan is described as having been a “textbook hippy man, and yet somewhere along his path he chose to play the game that would earn him the prestige, the paychecks, and all the financial security that accompanies them; this leaves him, of course, morally bankrupt.
“Carrying Cathy” and “Not the Same” follow the stories of two people who have become lost. Cathy ends up committing suicide, leaving the narrator with nightmares and regrets. The subject of “Not the Same” takes LSD, climbs a tree, and returns to the ground as a born-again Christian. In a sense, the latter song centers around the narrator’s disbelief that he has seen so many people change, “drop like flies from the bright, sunny skies,” and he is left alone with “one good trick.”
For all the bleak subject matter that dominates much of the disc, it is easy to dismiss the levity that the title track offers as contrary to the overall tone of the album. And yet “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is Folds’ signal to his audience that he has put all things in perspective. If nowhere else on the album, it is on the title track that he lets all the walls fall down to reveal his sense of humor and unique perspective in as uncensored a manner as possible.
Go ahead and watch the music video. Try not to laugh, I dare you.
“Fired” continues in the same vein as previous tracks like “Losing Lisa,” describing the painful revelations of the narrator.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “The Luckiest” completes the album on a fittingly somber-sounding note, providing a hopeful story as the singer confesses his love — albeit in a unique manner — through a description of his perspectives on l0ve, life, fate, and choice. And isn’t this ability to start all over again, heartbreak notwithstanding, the key factor in being able to break free of the loneliness that threatens to haunt all human souls?
It would only take one listen to Way To Normal to reveal that the starting over may also lead to future heartbreak, but that is indeed the story for another review…
When Robert Christgau labeled this album a “dud,” tossing it into the general category of “a bad record whose details rarely merit further thought,” he clearly missed not one but many outstanding attributes of Folds’ debut. He missed a provocative exploration of the modern human psyche, that lonely, longing, and bruised side that many of us attempt to push aside for the ease of survival. He missed a fascinating lineup of characters populating the album from front to back — characters like Annie, Zak, Sara, Fred Jones, Stan, Lisa, Cathy, and Lucretia — who are representative of the negative toll society can take on individuals.
And he certainly missed the finely layered vocals, bass, and drums that are always supporting, yet never surpassing, Ben Folds’ considerable talents on piano.
This is an album that I hope you won’t miss. It shaped the way I see my world, and continues to merit further thought every time I listen to it, all the while being a great deal of fun to listen to.
As I’ve inquired in the past, what more could you ask for in a rock album?