For most of his career, Ben Folds has thrived on examining those things that needle and surprise us from within -- even in his fictional narratives, you can sense very real experiences whispering from the shadows. Beneath the versatile Tin Pan Alley flourishes and Randy Newmanesque pop sheen of his songs, Folds's attitude ranges from heartfelt to smirking to unforgiving (sometimes all three at once).
One day when I'm about 60, I'm going to be puttering around in my back yard and suddenly remember an argument or breakup from my early twenties. I'm pretty sure I'll also mutter something mildly bitter to myself about the woman involved, the years not providing enough of a barrier for the sudden flow of memory. I know that probably doesn't sound very mature, but how realistic is it to expect objectivity in matters of the heart, even when a lifetime has passed? Granted, I'll then achieve some sort of balance by shifting some of the blame onto myself, but that initial angry impulse will be proof that these things often lurk closer to the surface than we'd like.
For most of his career, Ben Folds has thrived on examining those things that needle and surprise us from within -- even in his fictional narratives, you can sense very real experiences whispering from the shadows. Beneath the versatile Tin Pan Alley flourishes and Randy Newmanesque pop sheen of his songs, Folds's attitude ranges from heartfelt to smirking to unforgiving (sometimes all three at once). Strangely, this makes people wish he'd grow up, as if we mistakenly believe that age or maturity erases our need to mourn our private losses, smirk at the quirks of our friends or enemies, and linger over real and perceived slights. The last Ben Folds Five album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Meissner, seemed to be a conscious attempt to mature, to tackle big topics, and while it had a handful of top-notch songs, much of the album bogged down. It's a Catch-22 of sorts: make respectable "adult" music that loses its immediacy or make satisfying music that makes people wish for some vague realization of potential.
Folds still radiates potential, even after five albums. He soars often enough to make you feel he has a masterpiece under his belt, but hopefully not one that foregoes some of his strengths in favor of musical "growth". Sure, Folds often attacks the keys like a (highly gifted) three-year old throwing a musical tantrum, but it so often feels . . . right. Part of Folds's perceived "problem" may be the humor-laden songs like "Underground", "Uncle Walter" (which still summons belly laughs every time I hear it), or "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces". Sometimes he's content to just write a jokey song, but he's usually turning a sharp satirical eye on something deserving. More often than not, his songs aspire to something deeper than just surface foolishness. "Song for the Dumped" might contain the terrible (but funny) sentiment "Give me my money back, you bitch / and don't forget to give me back my black t-shirt", but that's how most of us think from the cradle to the grave, so at least it's an honest sentiment.
On the other hand, this is the same man who wrote a tender vignette like "Cigarette", which reached a heartbreaking level of sadness in less than two minutes, and "Brick", which told the delicate tale of a young couple dealing with the aftermath of an abortion. Songs like that, perhaps, are where Folds's greatest strength lies -- in his ability to tell stories with details that resonate. Past songs like "The Last Polka" (a shattering collision of lacerating accusations and ugly piano chords as a relationship goes down in flames), "Smoke" (which uses gorgeous imagery of a burning book to symbolize love's end from a more poignant angle), and "Mess" (which crafts house-as-soul themes into a story of one man's resolve going into a new relationship) work not only because they get at something real to all of us, but also because they're extremely well-told in the process.
Thankfully, Folds's forays into solo waters with Rockin' the Suburbs don't lose that focus. He doesn't seem to be making any grand creative statements, or trying to overcompensate for the absence of two creative minds. The absence of his former bandmates is noticeable to a small degree in the music; Folds plays virtually every instrument on the record, but he stays true to the time-tested BFF template of fuzzy bass lines and bouncy piano melodies. A few songs disappoint, but Rockin' the Suburbs is exactly what Folds has given us all along: stories of relationships in various states of ascent or descent, and tales of people realizing that life didn't turn out at all like they planned. On the title track, he even returns to jaded "Underground" mode, dissecting angry rap-rock. Lines like "I got shit running through my brain / so intense that I can't explain" and "mom and dad you made me so uptight / gonna cuss on the mic tonight" perfectly parody the Limp Bizkits of the world while name-checking Michael Jackson, Quiet Riot, and Jon Bon Jovi. In a much more subdued comedic vein, "Zak and Sara" is a nice pop portrait of a guitar-wanking dude and his bored, slightly psychic girlfriend, while "Carrying Cathy" details a spoiled girl's emotionally fragile state of mind and possible suicide.
Like every other Folds effort, though, it's the sensitivity hiding behind the smirk that's the real story. The funny songs might get the airplay and create the sales, but it's the songs with emotional depth that induce repeated listens. "Fred Jones Part 2" is a sad tale of a man, "forgotten but not yet gone", losing his job after 25 years. It's filled with the odd sorts of details that pepper real life, like Fred sitting at his desk without the lights on, or projecting slides onto a sheet and trying to trace them. "Still Fighting It" is a poignant conversation between a fast-food-serving father and his young son at the register. "The Ascent of Stan" twists the piano melody from "Mess" and examines the intangible costs of selling out, concluding that "it's no fun to be The Man". "The Luckiest", an ode to Folds's wife, is the kind of string-swept song hardly anyone can pull off these days, free of pop diva histrionics and Top 40 saccharine. Perhaps only Folds could wonder aloud about lovers being born in different times, and of old wives serenely dying days after their old husbands, and make it work so well. Perhaps its only recent peer is Randy Newman's "I Miss You", a song that teetered on the edge of being too much, but which was always pulled back by the singer's sincerity and straightforward honesty.
Rockin' the Suburbs won't convert anyone who's already dismissed Folds, especially those who hear too much sameness in his piano playing or compositional style (there's no denying he has a signature sound). Like his other records, it also has average moments to match the inspired flights. Ultimately, though, Rockin' the Suburbs shows Ben Folds continuing to make honest music. He might be telling made-up stories of other peoples' lives, but as the saying goes, "things need not have happened to be true". Much of what happens to Folds's characters happens to all of us, and while Fred Jones, Annie, Zak, Sara, Stan, or Lucretia might not be real people (but then again, they may be), we know someone just like them (or maybe see something of them in ourselves). There are few artists capable of pulling that off these days. If Ben Folds suddenly has some epiphany that results in a classic album, so be it. For now, though, I'm perfectly happy with the imperfect beasts he currently creates. Each of his albums holds at least two or three songs that speak directly to me, and that's more valuable to me by far than anything else he could do.