Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Review: Ben Folds - Way To Normal (* * *)

Some people never grow up; Ben Folds is one of them. Now over the hill, Folds shows no signs of maturing musically or otherwise, preferring to stick with his unique brand of high-energy, sometimes expletive-filled, piano pop. That in itself is not a bad thing; in fact, it's one of his greatest strengths. The ability to explain the world in simple, creative, and unapologetic terms has gained him a legion of very loyal fans across a wide range of ages. Combine that with overflowing musical talent, and Ben Folds' appeal becomes apparent.

You have to wonder, though, whether Folds is pushing his luck this time around with Way To Normal. With Rockin' The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, he managed to balance sincerity with sarcasm, sweetness with bitterness. On his latest album, Folds rarely lets us see his sensitive side, instead presenting a series of angry social and emotional rants. "The Frown Song" takes a jab a fashion-conscious yuppies spreading their misery, "Bitch Went Nuts" tells the story of a crazy girlfriend, and "Brainwascht" apparently was written in response to a song slamming Ben (no details yet; I'm looking into it). It's all done with his usual dramatic piano style and sense of melody, but it's also a little juvenile and unflattering.

Elsewhere, Folds deals with empty relationships, small-town struggles, and loneliness. It's a wild, fun ride throughout, despite the subject matter, and he certainly seems to be having a good time, especially during rave-ups like "Dr. Yang," where Folds delivers a fantastic pounding piano solo. While there are a few disposable tracks ("Errant Dog," "Free Coffee"), most of the songs are at least decent, and he even gets sentimental in his own way with the album's two ballads, "Cologne" and "Kylie From Connecticut." In many ways it's classic Ben Folds, and fans will certainly find plenty to love.

Maybe it's my problem then, that I can't see the charm and appeal in Way To Normal that I did in Rockin' The Suburbs and earlier projects. But I can't help feeling that Ben Folds now sounds almost like a parody of himself; having a good time at the expense of creating something a little more meaningful, relevant, and...mature. I really do hate to say it, but sometimes I wish he'd just grow up.

Favorite Tracks: "Dr. Yang," "The Frown Song," "You Don't Know Me"

As mentioned earlier, the album is available to stream this week at Spinner.com


The Captain said...

You captured my thoughts perfectly.