CD review for Ben Folds
October 3, 2008
Steamboat Springs — “Way to Normal”
Probably the best of Ben Folds’ cadre of songwriting tricks is the easiest one: telling a story the way it happened, pretty much word for word, and hoping to turn that story into a metaphor.
It worked for “Your Most Valuable Possession” (where Folds plays piano under a phone message from his father), it worked on “Brick” (about an ordeal with a high school girlfriend), and it worked on “Not the Same” (about a drug-addled night at Robert Sledge’s party).
On “Way to Normal,” Folds uses the same trick with album opener “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head),” the story of his literal nosedive off a stage in Japan. Sticking to the catchy-song-first, ballad-last formula that’s shaped each of his records, Folds lets loose a big vamping indulgence with “Hiroshima,” a send-up of his self-styled comparisons to a hyper-masculine, super-snotty Elton John.
Folds is funniest when he’s not trying to be, and that comes through on “Hiroshima.” But on “Way to Normal,” there are too many moments where he tries too hard for his 42 years. “Effington” is a miss where 2005’s “Jesusland” was a hit; “B – Went Nuts” is a little like 1995’s “Julianne,” but doesn’t make sense coming from a decade-plus-advanced songwriter; “Brainwascht” isn’t as smart as it’s intended.
Still, “Normal’s” highlights are good enough to stand up to Folds’ strongest work. “Cologne” fits with his best autobiographical ballads; “You Don’t Know Me” is a single-worthy duet with Regina Spektor that doesn’t sound like anything else Folds has done; “Hiroshima” will never leave your head; and “Kylie from Connecticut” is his best album-closer since 1999’s “Lullabye.”
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Folds’ music always has been about lyrical and melodic ease – it’s power pop, and that’s the point. It’s coy at the same time that it’s touching. So while there aren’t any breakthroughs in that formula on “Way to Normal,” it’s not likely many Folds fans expected there would be.