BEN FOLDS: WAY TO NORMAL (2008)
1) Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head); 2) Dr Yang; 3) The Frown Song; 4) You Don't Know Me; 5) Before Cologne; 6) Cologne; 7) Errant Dog; 8) Free Coffee; 9) Bitch Went Nuts; 10) Brainwascht; 11) Effington; 12) Kylie From Connecticut.
Really bad album title here. The lack of a second ʽoʼ in ʽtooʼ would never deter the skeptics from sneering «You don't say!», which they really do in their two-star and C+ reviews. But it's even worse if you prefer not to notice the pun — because who of us would want a «normal» Ben Folds? Any more «normal» and he'd be Vanessa Carlton. An immediate turn-off, and a particularly ridiculous one, considering that it is also deceptive: Way To Normal is not really any more or less «normal» than any other Ben Folds record. In fact, considering its overall lightweight nature and the abundance of openly clownish moments, it might even be less normal than usual. Maybe he should have come up with that title earlier — I think that Rockin' The Suburbs is more deserving of it than this particular batch of tunes.
There is nothing surprising about the fact that Way To Normal was greeted with relative coldness, and the reasons behind this probably go deeper than a simple «oh no, not another forty minutes of this guy bitching about his problems» gut reaction. One of them is that thirty-five years earlier, a bespectacled eccentric called Reginald Kenneth Dwight recorded ʽBennie And The Jetsʼ, a stomping, fireworks-laden, piano-on-parade glam rocker that became one of the most symbolic and unforgettable anthems of its era — a giddy celebration of excess, decadence, and showbiz razzle-dazzle, spiced with self-irony that you could savor or ignore at your whim. Now, thirty-five years later, Ben Folds, a successful, but still somewhat aspiring singer-songwriter, opens his new album with an intentional tribute to that particular song, subtitled ʽB B B Benny Hit His Headʼ just so there would be no way whatsoever you could leave that fact unnoticed — and the song is about... falling on his head off the stage at the start of a Japanese show. "Oh oh oh, they're watching me fall", goes the chorus. Does that make you happy or what?
Oh, it's not a bad song at all — the chorus is suitably anthemic and catchy, and Ben pounds the keys with no less physical energy than Elton. It's a funny parody, except it came out about thirty years too late for us to properly get the joke, and, worse than that, it is one more reminder — as if we really needed one! — of why Elton John is Elton John, and Ben Folds, all pros and cons considered, is still only Ben Folds. And I am not even raising the issue of how convenient it is to get this sort of song under the title ʽHiroshimaʼ, which would normally have us expect something completely different. (Then again, it might be a politically incorrect plus rather than minus — fuck atomic bombs, let's just sing about falling on our heads instead).
A very similar piano-punching pattern constitutes the spine of the album's lead-off single and best-known track, ʽYou Don't Know Meʼ, for which Ben enlists the help of a chamber string section and Regina Spektor, who had only just graduated from Soviet kitsch to Begin To Hope, and whose whimsical style was in perfect agreement with this song, written by Ben as a mutually accusing dialog between the bastard and one of his bitches (and yes, most of the imaginary or not so imaginary protagonists on this album come across as certified bastards and bitches). The perceptive effect of ʽYou Don't Know Meʼ, however, is different from ʽHiroshimaʼ — the whole song, both instrumentally and vocally, is built on brief stop-and-start bits of melody, which gives it a robotic feel; Ben's and Regina's vocal interaction on all the "you-don't-know-me"s, in particular, sounds so intentionally rigid and mechanical as if it were computer-generated. But both singers are so «wimpy» that, in the end, they sound like baby robots having a baby battle of the wits, and while the effect is genuinely hard to forget, you do feel like you're sitting in the middle of a cutesy cartoon while it's on.
«Fluffy» moments like these abound on the record. ʽDr Yangʼ, ʽThe Frown Songʼ, ʽFree Coffeeʼ, and, of course, the infamously titled ʽBitch Went Nutsʼ — all of them giddy, lightweight, ironic, sometimes parodic pop-rockers; some of them are melodically impressive (ʽDr Yangʼ is a head-spinning piece of piano-based rock'n'roll with one of Ben's best piano tones ever captured on the instrumental solo part), but some do not seem to be making much of a point, or, worse still, are making a debatable point — the lyrics of ʽBitch Went Nutsʼ carry the «strained relationship» topic a little too far, right into the sphere of personal meanness, and the breakneck tempo of the piano melody does not allow Ben to redeem himself through efficient composition.
All the more surprising is the fact that, sandwiched in between these numerous samples of «storms in teacups», we do find some of Ben's most soulful ballads in ages — ʽCologneʼ and ʽKylie From Connecticutʼ both work on the most basic gut level, the former with its melancholic desperation (featuring the loneliest way to say the words "my hotel room" since Ray Davies), and the latter with its desperate melancholia, if you get the difference between the two. Both are far more emotionally loaded than ʽBrickʼ, even if their respective choruses are nowhere near that loud — apparently, as time (and more divorces) go by, it becomes easier for Folds to wallow in his misery and convert the results to heart-tugging vocal lines.
Overall, this is frankly a mess — but then again, so was a heavy chunk of, say, Paul McCartney's solo catalog (an analogy that probably came to my mind because both artists like to write silly songs about dogs — check ʽ3 Legsʼ against ʽErrant Dogʼ!). So, for consistency's sake, I couldn't dare condemn Way To Normal based on any «ideological» grounds, if the individual songs range from cutesy-funny to subtly-heart-wrenching. Diverse, creative, funny, and, as usual, honestly fulfilling Ben Folds' destiny — converting his life experience into friendly musical anecdotes. If, this time around, the results seem «fluffy», I guess it also merely reflects a particular piece of life experience. No problems with a thumbs up here.
On a side note, one year later Ben actually re-released the album as Stems And Seeds, changing the running order, adding some extra overdubs (notably additional orchestrated parts for ʽCologneʼ), and, most importantly, remixing all the tracks with less compression — acting on fan complaints about the poor sound quality of Way To Normal, as he explained before other fans who complained about the rip-off effect. I have heard both versions, and testify that Stems does sound a wee bit fresher and «ringier», so certified audiophiles might want to go along with the new version; but on the other hand, it is not as if they were so significantly different that you could get bored with the old one and then get redeemed with the new one. However, it is worth noting that, in the authentic tradition of the «nutty artist», the actual song ʽWay To Normalʼ only makes its appearance on Stems And Seeds, but not on Way To Normal itself. Fortunately for us all, it's not a particularly good song.
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