On the opening track of Lonely Avenue, Ben Folds sings “I’m a loser / I’m a poser … Everything I write is shit.“ This self-deprecating persona is one Folds has never shied away from in the past, but what makes it so intriguing this time around is that he didn’t pen the words.
Ben Folds & Nick Hornby
The man behind the lyrics for Folds’s seventh full-length studio album is novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby. If you recall John Cusack’s role as a broken-hearted vinyl enthusiast in “High Fidelity” or Hugh Grant’s middle-aged bachelor in “About a Boy,” you’re familiar with Hornby’s work. His character-centric studies of everyday people encountering ordinary circumstances like devastating breakups, ungraceful aging and youthful uncertainty parallel some themes Folds has addressed on past albums, including the decline of a meaningful relationship (“Losing Lisa”), growing old (“Bastard”) and teenage pregnancy (“Brick”).
And so it seems like a perfect match. Both of these artists are greats in their own separate realms — Hornby in storytelling and Folds as a composer — and Hornby’s lyrics complement Folds’s arrangements well. At this point in his career, Folds has decided to pool all of his energy into crafting arrangements to accompany someone else’s words. The product of this natural — if not slightly superfluous — pairing marks one of Folds’s strongest musical displays to date while remaining thematically consistent with his past work.
It only takes one listen to “Levi Johnston’s Blues” to figure out that Folds put his narrow focus on musical composition to good use. He masterfully sprinkles minimal usage of cymbals, plunked piano chords and a sharp bassline during the opening verse as the lyrics establish a narrative. When the song crescendos into the stirring strings of the chorus, it’s unabashedly anthemic and competes with some of Folds’s most memorable musical moments.
Bombast isn’t Folds’s only aim, however. On “Practical Amanda” and “Picture Window,” he exhibits his ability to bust out a rousing ballad. His latest foray into dancier tracks, anchored by spastic synthesizers, is on full display in “Saskia Hamilton.”
There’s plenty here for the diehard Folds fan as well. “Claire’s Ninth,” “Your Dogs” and “Doc Pomus” all have the upbeat piano-pop style to which Folds enthusiasts have grown accustomed.
Lyrically, Hornby’s style is bizarrely similar to Folds. The aforementioned “Levi Johnston’s Blues” is a compelling tale of a young man who received some unwanted media attention leading up to the 2008 presidential election. Told from the perspective of Bristol Palin’s boyfriend, the song expresses the grievances of an Alaskan teenager who just wants to be left alone. Although Folds normally stays clear of political subject matter, Hornby’s lyrics emulate the delicate sincerity that Folds regularly employs.
One success of the album that could easily be overlooked is Folds’s awareness of the emotional sentiments expressed in Hornby’s lyrics, which Folds translated flawlessly into music. This ability to interpret someone else’s thoughts and feelings into music is another achievement Folds can add to his lengthy resume.
The record’s most evident flaw is its lack of cohesion. Instead of functioning as a collection of ideas with a consistent line of progression from track to track, the album jumps from story to story without any connectivity. Admittedly, Folds hasn’t necessarily crafted a cohesive narrative across an entire album in his past work, but when Folds releases a record, it’s usually clear what’s on his mind and what’s happened in his life for the past year or two. This obstacle isn’t impossible to overcome as a listener, but it certainly makes the album easy to skip around and difficult to listen to from start to finish in one sitting.
After 15 years in the business, there is very little Ben Folds has not accomplished. Chart-topping albums, a Top-40 hit and a rabid fanbase have allowed him to take part in some unique creative endeavors, like performances with full orchestras in venues the Sydney Opera House, writing music for an animated movie and working with the likes of William Shatner. When Folds announced his latest project, it would have been easy to dismiss the concept as frivolous or extraneous. But on Lonely Avenue, Folds shows that he knows a good opportunity when he sees one and working with Nick Hornby has proven to be one of the best decisions of his career.