[7 October 2010]
As the author of High Fidelity and a stack of other highly-regarded novels, not to mention a non-fiction book about popular music (31 Songs), Nick Hornby’s music-geek credentials are considerable. Power-pop piano player Ben Folds has been making albums for a good 15 years now, and his discography includes a wealth of collaborations. He’s brought in guests such as Cake’s John McCrea, Weird Al Yankovic, and Regina Spektor to do vocals on his albums. In lieu of releasing a greatest hits compilation he went to college campuses around the country to record a cappella groups singing their arrangements of his songs. And he was the musical force behind William Shatner’s 2007 album Has Been. So it’s not entirely surprising that Hornby would have an itch to do some lyric-writing of his own, and that he would reach out to Folds to set his lyrics to music.
Upon the first listen there isn’t much difference between Lonely Avenue and the rest of Ben Folds discography. Folds’ own lyrics are often character studies, and Hornby’s writing style, while slightly more sophisticated, is tonally similar. The music and melodies all come from Folds, and the album sounds like the natural follow-up to his 2008 release Way to Normal. That was a noisy post-breakup album that featured Folds at his most sarcastic, but occasionally lapsed into juvenility. Musically Lonely Avenue has its raucous moments, but it’s generally a more measured collection of piano-pop songs. As the album begins to sink in, the lyrics gradually set themselves apart from what Folds usually writes.
“Picture Window” marries a beautiful melody to Hornby’s sad tale of a mother who checks into a hospital with a seriously ill child on New Year’s Eve. It turns out the hospital room has a perfect view of the New Year’s fireworks over London, and the mother fights with herself to stay sad and sober. She’s determined not to let the fireworks cheer her up. Folds’ simple piano chords are backed by lovely strings, which rise to Hornby’s bitter chorus: “You know what hope is? / Hope is a bastard / Hope is a liar / A cheat and a tease / Hope comes near you / Kick its backside / Got no place in times like these.” Marrying sad characters to sweet melodies is a Folds specialty, and he nails “Picture Window”, making it a worthy successor to classics like “Brick” and “Fred Jones, Part 2.”
In the liner notes, Hornby says that “Claire’s Ninth” is an adaptation of the first story he ever sold, which was never published. It’s one of the few songs on the album that quickly stand out as lyrics that Folds would not have written. It’s told from the point of view of a girl on her ninth birthday, frustrated that her divorced parents can’t get along even for one night. Musically, Folds gives the song a jaunty mid-tempo bounce with layered harmonies on the refrain. The other song that doesn’t sound much like something from Folds is “Saskia Hamilton”, Hornby’s tribute to a real-life poet. He tells it from the point of view of a teenage nerd who is in love with the poetic sound of Hamilton’s name. Lyrics like “No hard consonants in my girl Saskia / Every single syllable sounds like Shakespeaaah” and “Gonna live with her and it’ll all be harmonious / How could it not be when she’s that euphonious?” are great lines that clearly come from the mind of Hornby. It’s a little odd, then, that Folds ended up leaving his mark on the song so strongly. It’s the hardest-rocking song on the album, buttressed with New Wave-era Moog synths, shouting, and piles of extra percussion.
Other songs could’ve theoretically come from either man. Album opener “Working Day” finds Hornby relating a day at work in the life of a creative type. At first he pumps himself up, “I can do this / Really, I’m good enough”. Later, he’s self-impressed, “I’m a genius / Really, I’m excellent / Better than them / I kicked their asses.” And finally, depressed and defeated, “I’m a loser, I’m a poser / Yeah really, it’s over / I mean it and I quit.” In mid-song, Hornby comes up with a hook that could easily have come right from Folds, sarcastically saying, “Some guy on the net / Thinks I suck / And he should know / He’s got his own blog.” “Doc Pomus” marries Hornby’s story of the legendary Brill Building songwriter to a hyperactive piano line and skittering drums, and tops it off with a catchy chorus that sticks right in your head.
Lonely Avenue is a very strong album for Folds. Musically he’s right in his comfort zone, only taking a couple of chances. Mostly he seems focused on doing justice to Hornby’s lyrics by sticking to what he knows best. He employs strings at just the right times, and relies on his usual backing band at others. Hornby mostly does a great job with the lyrics, creating strong characters and evocations with only a handful of lines. It’s interesting that the album’s one real misfire, “Levi Johnston’s Blues”, fails in exactly the way you’d expect. Hornby’s lyrics put the listener in the shoes of the young man who impregnated Bristol Palin. On the morning after Sarah Palin becomes the Vice Presidential nominee, Johnston is mobbed by cameras and reporters. Hornby tries to mine sympathy for the guy in his verses, and resorts to using Johnston’s own (alleged) words in the chorus, supposedly taken from his Facebook page before it was removed. But the fact that Levi was proud of his Alaskan redneck lifestyle fails to convince us that he’s really just an okay guy in a bad situation. Folds, for his part, fumbles badly by setting the lyrics to a flaccid blues/lite jazz song. He’s never had much luck in his flirtations with jazz and blues (see: the bulk of the second half of Ben Folds Fives’ The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner), and that doesn’t change here. Besides that predictable misstep, though, Lonely Avenue has to be considered a big success for both artists.