“Time takes time, you know.” “Why you gotta act like you know when you don’t know?” “If you can’t trust, you can’t be trusted.” Is this what Ben Folds has been reduced to? Has the defiant man-boy of Rockin’ the Suburbs — you know, the one that was fighting the evil of “middle-age” as if the continued rotation of the Earth depended on it — been reduced to platitudes that may as well have been delivered by the old man down the block that walked 10 miles uphill to get pretty much anywhere?
Yes, this is Ben Folds, and Songs for Silverman continues his evolution, lyrically and musically, into middle-age. It took a few albums’ worth of kicking and screaming, but it finally seems that Folds has accepted his lot in life. Perhaps it’s his apparently healthy (if the liner-note tribute to wife Frally is any indication) marriage, perhaps it’s his two children, who are becoming regulars in his songs, or perhaps it’s just the forced contentment that comes with age, but the outlook Folds employs in his songs has become less snarky, more sincere, and, generally, far more mature than it once was — perhaps not coincidentally, his songs are also more often told from the first person than not, a sharp contrast to the largely character-driven parables of his past. This isn’t “good buddy” Ben anymore, this is Uncle Ben, just as likely to offer his wisdom via life experience as he is to crack a joke about sharing a name with the rice guy.
Unfortunately, contentment does not make for inspiring source material, and the music reflects a marked lack of serious conviction. Folds’ melodies are as lovely as ever, his piano playing as skillful as any of his best work previous to Songs for Silverman, but the highs and lows that he once so adeptly portrayed in his music have all but vanished. Once bent on rockin’ the suburbs, Folds is now satisfied to serenade them, as all traces of anything that once “rocked” have vanished entirely from his musical palette. I’m not even talking about “rock” in the sense of the satirical guitar-led bombast of Rockin’ the Suburbs‘ title track, I’m talking about “rock” in the sense that “Zak and Sara” rocks, or the way “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” rocks. It’s the kind of rock where you were never quite sure whether Folds would inadvertently smash his ever-present piano into little itty bits in a spilling over of unrestrained energy. That energy has regrettably disappeared, in favor of cold calculation.
Second track “You to Thank” is probably the quickest, loudest thing on the entirety of Songs for Silverman, but even it contains long stretches of quiet before Ben, in what is admittedly a refreshing tantrum of a chorus, blames his counterpart for the failing of a long-term relationship. Even so, when Folds hits an off-note after the “to thank” of the second chorus, one’s not sure if he really hit a bum note in a fit of passion, or tossed it in as vague musical symbolism, where before, there was never a doubt — the passion would always win. Conversely, even the quiet isn’t as quiet as it used to be, as the deliberate, reflective tone of songs like “The Luckiest” and “Fred Jones Part 2” are replaced by songs like the maudlin “Time” and the admittedly lovable dedication to Folds’ daughter, “Gracie”. There’s nothing here that goes for the gut–Folds is too busy aiming at our heads.
Admittedly, such an aim evidently makes for some solid lyrical work.
While Folds has always been prone to trite universalist remarks when he writes a chorus (a tendency underlined on Songs for Silverman), it’s been in his verses that his most biting and poignant observations have come. “Town to town / broadcast to each house, they drop your name / But no one knows your face / Billboards quoting things you’d never say / You hang your head and pray,” says Folds in “Jesusland”, a portrait of a dying Bible Belt town, told as a story of Jesus himself walking through the town. There’s not much of a plot to this story, really, but it’s beautiful as a still life. “Late” is a eulogy for the dearly departed Elliott Smith, avoiding too much overt sentimentality in its obvious reverence. “Someone came and washed away your hard-earned peace of mind,” sings Folds, leaving unsaid just how precarious that peace of mind must have been. Lines in “Landed”, the almost uncomfortably Elton John-esque first single, allude to just how much abuse someone will take in the name of something they think is love: “And I twisted it wrong just to make it right / Had to leave myself behind,” sings Folds, and almost anyone listening can empathize, at least a little bit.
It is hard, however, to argue the merits of a lyricist who still sounds like he’s giggling, just a little bit, every time he tosses in a naughty word (of which there are plenty, particularly in the D.O.A. album-opener that is “Bastard”). It’s almost as hard, in fact, as arguing the merits of a musician that turns a crushing, lovely breakup ballad into a painfully generic mid-tempo country ditty, as Folds does with “Give Judy My Notice”, whose original, superior form can be found on 2003’s stopgap Speed Graphic EP. With Songs for Silverman, Ben Folds has finally taken the focus off of his ever-evolving cast of inspired characters, and has finally written an album that centers on himself; unfortunately, it seems entirely possible that his trademark humility has finally gotten the best of him, as he has fashioned himself the least interesting of any of his own characters.