BEN FOLDS: SONGS FOR SILVERMAN (2005)
1) Bastard; 2) You To Thank; 3) Jesusland; 4) Landed; 5) Gracie; 6) Trusted; 7) Give Judy My Notice; 8) Late; 9) Sentimental Guy; 10) Time; 11) Prison Food.
The album sleeve photo is so outrageously generic-hipster here that there are only three choices from the outset: either the music is going to be suitably generic boring trash, or it is going to be a masterpiece of self-parody, or it is simply going to be a masterpiece, because there's really no way that album sleeve photo could be anything but a sarcastic ruse. The third choice seems like the unlikeliest of the three — but give Songs For Silverman a few attentive listens, and you just might start veering towards No. 3 all the same.
My own first listen was a complete disaster: the only thing I understood was that the album consisted exclusively of sentimental / melancholic ballads, nary a bouncy, rhythmic pop hook in sight, let alone any possibilities of «rocking out», and that kind of monotonousness would be hard to take even from a certified genius like Paul (even before he stopped eating meat) or Elton (even before he sold all his costumes). There were no new attitudes or approaches, either, though it did look as if he took a few extra singing lessons; and the instrumentation, once again, was completely dominated by solo piano, with sparsely scattered guitar or string overdubs passing by unnoticed unless you were really paying attention.
The situation only changed by the third time, when the music sank in a little bit and started dissolving the major prejudice — namely, the one that Ben Folds is a good pop hook provider and a funny maniac on stage, but a generally rotten troubadour. The particular song that did it to me was ʽLandedʼ (and a good choice for first single from the album it was, too, even though it did not manage to get too high on the charts). Relatively simple lyrical message of transgression and redemption — but what a terrific musical build-up, from the quavering vocal of the verse aided in becoming decisive by the sharp piano chords, and right up to the "bye-bye goodbye" hook of the chorus: a well-placed falsetto note or two can work wonders, but only if it is well-placed, and I think this one deserves an A+ for well-placing.
Then there was ʽTimeʼ — normally, I'd suggest that artists that still go on writing songs named ʽTimeʼ should be lined up against the wall, but this one actually happens to deserve its own place of honor somewhat below, but not light-years-far-from Pink Floyd's, Bowie's, or Alan Parsons', and again, much of this has to do with the unbeatable falsetto hook, indeed delivered by Ben Folds himself, even if he is being vocally assisted on the song by none other than Weird Al Yankovic, for some reason. Not that there's anything weird about the song itself — it is just a mid-tempo adult contemporary ballad with complexly layered backing vocals, but the drama is so masterfully executed, mainly through the contrast between "in time I will fade away, in time I won't hear what you say, in time..." (strong, self-assured bit) and "...but time takes time you know" — this time, the falsetto actually means "PANIC!".
These two songs served as the anchor for testing a hypothesis — what if Songs For Silverman is actually a confessional masterpiece, Ben's own Plastic Ono Band, or Blue, or Blood On The Tracks, any of those things? For that matter, he would only divorce his third wife, Frally Hynes, in November 2006, but it is quite likely that things were flying out of control much earlier already, and considering how many ladies ultimately failed to satisfy the man (he seems to be taking his cue here from big idol Billy Joel), it might be argued that Ben Folds marries and divorces mainly for the sake of getting fresh inspiration for his material. And indeed, other than the first track and ʽJesuslandʼ, just about everything here is about being alone once again and trying to find different ways to deal with the trauma, either by remembering, or by forgetting. But that is not important per se — the really important thing is, should we care?
I think that songs like ʽLandedʼ and ʽTimeʼ provide ample evidence that we should. Yes, he may be building here on the same territory that had already refused to yield to him several times earlier, but he's either been taking songwriting lessons (next to singing ones) or perhaps the feelings just got sharper, so that much — far from all, but much of the album — really cuts hard, and should be well recommendable for all non-suicidal loners who want to heal rather than hurt, or, at least, use the hurt for healing purposes.
It's really a brief conceptual travelog here. We begin with some general morals ("why you gotta act like you know when you don't know?") as a basic framework (ʽBastardʼ), start off at the far away beginning when things were good and connecting (ʽYou To Thankʼ, although the song is already permeated with sadness, so you know it's not going to be all that happy from now on), take a sideways stroll to think about the futility of religion (ʽJesuslandʼ), patch up our first batch of differences (ʽLandedʼ), and raise our little kid (ʽGracieʼ — quite a charming little ballad to Ben's daughter). That's the «still-okay» part of the business.
As we go to Side B, we discover that she's been reading our secret diary (ʽTrustedʼ), declare that "I won't be your bitch anymore" (ʽGive Judy My Noticeʼ), take another sideways stroll to say a few words in memory of the recently departed Elliott Smith (ʽLateʼ — but thematically, with its mournful farewell mood, the song fits in perfectly), share a few last thoughts on how we used to be so similar, but the different has won out all the same (ʽSentimental Guyʼ), make the transition to spiteful bitterness in relations (ʽTimeʼ), and wrap it up with a grand finale (ʽPrison Foodʼ) where Ben's quiet wailing ("alone, alone again!") is enveloped in frantically thrown layers of percussion, piano, and steel guitar, as if the idea was to create something on the scale of ʽLove Reign O'er Meʼ. Of course, that sort of scale is quite out of reach, but a humble approximation is quite possible, and if ʽPrison Foodʼ will not be able to make you feel sorry for the man, then you are probably immune to Ben Folds as an organic character in general.
Some of these songs are worse than others, but the fact that it all ties up so nicely kind of levels everything up: the highlights never cease to be highlights, and the lowlights, whatever they be, are still moody enough to fit the concept. The only thing that does not fit is the title of the album — which, for that matter, was going to be dedicated to Ben's representative at Sony (Ben Goldman), but, for reasons of confidentiality, «Goldman» ultimately got split into «Silverman» and «Goldfish» (for the accompanying live record). That, like the album photo, should be regarded as a proverbial red herring, because the personal experiences of Ben Goldman have nothing to do with the personal experiences of Ben Folds, or with the status of this album as the ultimate breakup record of... well, let's say, of the year 2005, since, after all, breaking up seems to be the quintessential Significant Artistic Topic of the 21st century, families not being what they used to be and all that. Anyway, a hefty thumbs up, of course.
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