In Ben Folds’ case, the numbers (most of them fives and threes), tell the story: Ten years ago, Ben Folds formed Ben Folds Five, a Chapel Hill trio he described as “punk rock for sissies.” Five years and three studio albums later, they disbanded. They had one unlikely pop hit in 1998, “Brick,” which documented the emotional toll of abortion on a young couple. Folds released a truly solo album in 2001, Rockin’ the Suburbs, for which he played all the instruments. He produced and wrote the music for William Shatner’s shockingly enjoyable album Has Been. And now, after a trio of five-song length E.P’s, Songs for Silverman is Ben’s first studio album in three and a half years.
Every review will say that this album signifies Ben Folds’ transition from a collegiate wiseass with a gift for melody to a mature pop craftsman. They will all say this because it is true. For better or worse, there’s a lot less F-bomb-throwing, barrel-house piano stomping here. Despite my reluctance to write knowingly what will become a reviewer’s cliché, I will also announce: Folds is dragging his twenty-something audience into adulthood and the mainstream. He may also become America’s songwriter along the way.
Folds’ songs resonate because their characters are caught in that chief human drama of trying to reconcile human weakness with high expectations. The stage for this is usually romantic relationships. “You to Thank” chronicles the suppressed doubts about a marriage that started too soon, “in the hot Nevada sun.” And in “Trusted,” Folds must tangle with a woman whom he knows is “Going to be pissed when she wakes up / For terrible things I did to her in her dreams.”
In Songs for Silverman, Folds sings about his five-year-old daughter in “Gracie,” Elliot Smith in “Late,” and his part of America in “Jesusland.” All three of these songs are noticeable for both their lack of irony and the commonplaceness of their imagery. Folds has remarked in interviews that writing sincere pop songs is become increasingly difficult in our irony-drenched culture. Randy Newman and Elvis Costello, both heroes to Folds, worked (consciously or not) to dethrone sincerity in pop music and replace it with irony. Pretentious critics and street credit-mongers have acted as irony’s palace guard ever since. Artists like Marc Cohn (who won a Grammy for Walking in Memphis), could not sustain careers with non-ironic pop, which inevitably was panned by critics as schmaltzy (and it often was). Folds brought irony and jadedness in pop music to its most sterling heights in his song “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” which found a way to admire and satirize the 1990s pot-smoking, Rockford Files-watching, ubiquitous slacker.
But in Songs for Silverman, Folds begins to turn the tide against irony, avoiding schmaltz by employing everyday imagery. While “Gracie” is an adoring, loving tribute to his daughter, Folds’ love is expressed by his unwillingness to disturb his daughter’s sleep, despite the lack of blood in the arm he offers as her pillow. The late musician Elliot Smith is not given the treatment of another “genius, taken from us,” but is remembered by Folds for playing dirty basketball.
“Jesusland” is the most tricky and rewarding song on the album. Reading the tile, I cringed at the thought of Folds descending into Frank Rich-style scolding of Red America, but in this “Jesusland,” God literally walks through, surveying the wig shops, billboards, and “Crosses flying high above the malls” and he can’t find a soul that knows him. The dislocation of “Beautiful McMansions on a hill/ that overlook a highway” is set to an achingly melancholic cello arrangement.
After five years of a solo career, Folds has put together a touring band of three (including himself), but now with Jared Reynolds on bass and Lindsay Jamieson on drums. They are essentially replacements for Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse of Ben Folds Five, who remain (for whatever reason) estranged from Folds and involved in recording projects of their own. However well the format of piano, bass and drums suits Folders’ songwriting and performing, the touring band will at first suffer by comparison to “the Five.”
Songs for Silverman is an excellent album, ballad heavy but never maudlin, musically adventurous but not overbearing. It’s pop music for adults without falling into the trap of “adult contemporary.” Unfortunately, the radio and television formats that aim for the lowest common denominator will skip Folds for the latest booty-quaking craze. While rap, rap rock, and tween music fill up MTV and your local top 40 radio station, Songs for Silverman will be waiting on the shelves to be discovered. Getting married (and staying that way), having kids, and moving to Nashville has changed Ben Folds as a songwriter — and his songwriting may prefigure larger cultural changes in America as the uncreatively named Gen-Y begins to settle down and domesticate itself.
The summer I was seventeen, I saw Ben Folds Five in Central Park. Ben beat the hell out of his piano, while wearing a thrift store-quality suit. The bassist wore a shirt with Tweety Bird on it and was accompanied by a string section. I was signed up for the Battle of Who Could Care Less and I would never really grow up. I, like all the other fans, would wear corduroys and a knowing grin all my life. Now, my college years are about to become past tense and I don’t have time to watch reruns of the Rockford Files. Some of my friends are getting married. I look at my girlfriend and wonder myself. My smile is unaffected now and I ask: Was irony overrated all this time?
Michael Brendan Dougherty writes from New York and keeps his weblog, Surfeited by Dainties, at www.michaelbrendan.com.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire