Duck! Here comes the kitchen sink!
Here are a few of the production flourishes that Ben Folds has seen fit to utilize on his latest album, the fittingly-titled Way to Normal: sampled crowd noise (“Hiroshima”), high-pitched hip-hop synths (“The Frown Song”), staticky programmed beats (“Free Coffee”), thick strings (“Kylie from Connecticut” and “Cologne”), and overdriven distortion (“Dr. Yang”). None of this is even to mention that there’s a guest star along for the ride—Regina Spektor shows up to provide counterpoint on the brilliant first single that is “You Don’t Know Me”—and a lyrical snippet that references Lisa Nowak’s ill-advised, passion-driven trek from Houston to Orlando (“Cologne”).
Pointing these things out illustrates a vital point about Way to Normal, namely that Ben Folds is writing and performing music as if he has something to prove again. Songs for Silverman almost felt like an artist’s last album, because so much of it was written from the point of view of a sage, knowing narrator who was more than willing to comment on the fortunes of those around him and offer words of advice to those who needed it. Songs for Silverman was sober to a fault, nearly joyless (save for the short-but-sweet tribute to his daughter) in its contentment.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Way to Normal is an album borne of a year of personal upheaval, the details of which have not been highly publicized (at least by Ben himself), but did yield a divorce and remarriage. Way to Normal is about tantrum throwing, quiet reflection, the twisty road that leads to acceptance and the realization that the very concept of “normal” may well be a myth. So much of the album is about subtext and hidden meanings that it’s hard to find anything “normal” about it. Folds wrote these songs with more than one meaning in mind, and to truly appreciate the album (or, at least, to truly discuss it in any sort of engaging manner) is to acknowledge this.
Take one of the most blatantly misogynistic songs of Folds’s career, a little ditty he titled “The Bitch Went Nuts”. On one hand, it’s a song that seems analogous to his own “Song for the Dumped”, a song that rails agains the “bitch” who so egregiously wronged him. She did “stab [his] basketball and the speakers to [his] stereo”, after all. And while Folds is quite obviously writing the cuss-filled diatribe for the sake of shock value and juvenile giggles (any guy who would cover Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is certainly prone to as much), a read between the lines starts to reveal the insecurity that lies behind such a rant. “Why do they all go, why do they all go?”, he repeats over and over, neurotically, desperately frustrated that he can’t keep the women he dates from going ballistic, placing the blame on their precarious sanity. It’s here that Ben Folds and the narrator of his song become separate people, and you get the sense that Folds himself knows better than to think it’s always her fault.
The sense of mutual “guilt” when it comes to the decay of a relationship seems to be a constant throughout the album, as a matter of fact. “You Don’t Know Me” sees Folds and Regina Spektor trading lines in the chorus as Folds wonders what’s keeping them together in the verse, while the utter heartbreaker that is closer “Kylie from Connecticut” is a tale told from the point of view of a woman whose suspicions of her husband’s infidelity reignites the passion of her own affair from 30 years before. “Cologne” eschews the issue of guilt altogether, instead coming off as something like the not-so-happy ending to the tale began in Rockin’ the Suburbs’ “The Luckiest”, simply offering sadness via the beautifully frank lyrical style that Folds has mastered over the years.
And yet, despite all of this, Way to Normal is not a breakup album—at least, not in the way that albums like Sea Change or Blood on the Tracks are.
If anything, it’s more like rebirth, as if whatever the last year brought has caused Folds to rediscover his youth. On one hand, there’s an energy to these songs that hasn’t been present since the days of the Five. “Dr. Yang” nearly approaches the old infamous B-side “Bad Idea” in its urgency, “The Frown Song” plays a bit like a middle-aged take on “Underground” or “The Battle of Who Could Care Less”, and “Brainwascht” sports a beat that borders on techno, similar to that of “The Ascent of Stan”. Not to mention that the kitchen sink production re-ignites memories of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, the final (and this reviewer would say best) Ben Folds Five album. On the other hand, it plays almost like a missive to be yourself, that insincerity and deception lead only to heartbreak and regret. Uncle Ben is giving us advice again, except in a far less obvious way than on Songs for Silverman.
Perhaps most importantly, Folds has given us something to talk about again with an album that works, front to back, on both musical and lyrical levels. Way to Normal is discussion fodder for die hard fans, but it’s also pleasing enough on the surface to draw in casual listeners, even going so far as to bait those who would call him the new generation’s Elton John by subtitling “Hiroshima”, which opens the album, “B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head”. There is nary a weak link to be found. More than anything, Way to Normal is simply Folds’s way of showing us that, at 42, he’s still doing this piano-power-pop thing better than anyone else around.