Ben Folds, “Way to Normal” (2008)
By STEPHANIE BREIJO
Ben Folds took to the stage in Hiroshima, Japan as the house lights lowered and expectations rose, only to slip and promptly cut open his head in front of thousands of fans. And while the scars may be hard to see on the cover of his latest release, “Way to Normal,” the album’s second single, “Hiroshima,” serves as a reminder of the incident as well as a return to the quirky piano man’s return to normalcy—though it’s too early to bring out the welcome brigade just yet.
Fans of the Folds of yore may have missed the singer’s humor, quippy remarks and light melodies since Folds’ most recent album, “Songs for Silverman.” More familiarly, “Way to Normal” musically ties itself to Folds’ first solo record, “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” since his split from Ben Folds Five.
With similar playfulness and jabs at culture, it appears that the good humored pianist has returned to his “normal” songwriting standard. On his latest, the songs are once again lighthearted, discussing breakups humorously (“Bitch Went Nuts”) and clean-cut life satirically (“Effington”).
But Folds’ piano falls flat with “Normal,” which lacks the substance of his previous work, be it solo or in the triumvirate of talent, Ben Folds Five.
If “Songs for Silverman’s” melancholy marks it as the brooding, emotional genius in the family and “Rockin’ the Suburb’s” jovial melodies place it as the mischievous yet loveable younger sibling, then
“Way to Normal,” like an awkward distant relative, tries to be youthful by playing a younger age than it actually is.
Folds, now with two decades of musicianship under his belt, has plummeted to a level of juvenile songwriting that even his earliest works never reached.
With too much mishmashed experimentation, the album sounds haphazardly thrown together with little regard for substance. More so than in any of his previous work, Folds now focuses on hypothetical characters without stories an audience can relate to—a musical land he once reigned—with recent songs such as “Dr. Yang,” a tune about a series of doctors and their professions, twisting and tugging the pianist whose lyrics now lack anecdotes or any substantive purpose at all. Really.
Not even his collaboration with indie-pop songstress Regina Spektor could save the album from meaninglessness. “You Don’t Know Me,” while catchy, is merely repetitive and with Spektor only repeating Folds’ basic, explanatory lines back to him, gives her little to work with.
The few shining gems of the album, the hilarious “Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)”—Folds’ nod to Sir Elton—and “Cologne,”—his solemn “Silverman”-like heartbreaker about the end of a relationship—stand out as a ray of hope that Folds, while musically, lyrically and substantively lacking, may someday escape “Way to Normal,” the abnormal low point of his career.