Ben Folds and Nick Hornby: Lonely Avenue

Lonely Avenue is a very strong album for Ben Folds, and a successful debut for Nick Hornby as a lyricist. Folds tries to do justice to Hornby's lyrics by staying in his own musical comfort zone and writing great melodies.

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby

Lonely Avenue

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2010-09-28
UK Release Date: 2010-09-27

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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.