Ben Folds
Way To Normal
Epic Records
3 out of 5 stars

On July 16th, Ben Folds tried to catch the public off guard by personally “leaking” a fake album before the release date of the real new album, Way to Normal.

Folds and crew assembled the fake in a single recording session, but some of the songs could actually compete with their real counterparts. They follow the same melodic outline and similar lyrical themes but Folds’s famous wit shines through most on the fake version. The fake “The Bitch Went Nuts,” for example, follows the tragic downfall of a man whose attempt at making partner in a firm is derailed by his girlfriend’s liberal tirade at an office party. However, what’s even more surprising than the fake leak is the way the real album treads into new territory for Folds. The songs might not be as memorable as some of his classics, but Way to Normal produces a refreshing take on a tried and true style.

In his new album, Folds picks up the cue from other artists who are experimenting with their sounds by adding indie rock and electronic elements. The new sounds create a more aggressive style than his usual piano-inflected pop. If it weren’t for his distinctive vocals and trademark driving piano it might not be recognizable as the work of Folds.

“Hiroshima,” “Dr. Yang” and “Errant Dog” all showcase his dive into indie rock. On these tracks he amps up the volume on the bass beat and experiments more with his vocals, yelling and distorting them at times. “Free Coffee” and “The Frown Song,” on the other hand, let electronic riffs take the place of his usual melodic piano backing. Even the lyrics stray from the normal Ben Folds repertoire of sappy love songs and sad ballads. On “The Bitch Went Nuts,” Folds rants about a girlfriend-turned-crazy-ex who “stabbed my basketball / And the speakers to my stereo.” During “Effington” he laments “if there’s a God / He is laughing at us / And our football team.”

Folds is no stranger to comedy (remember “Supersunnyspeedgraphic” and “Bitches Ain’t Shit?”), but he’s most well known for songs on the somber side. Way to Normal just happens to have fewer than usual. But he doesn’t totally ditch the depression. “Kylie from Connecticut” and “Cologne” mark a return to the old Ben Folds ballads with strings, soft piano and heartbreaking lyrics. “Kylie” tells the sad story of a lost love, and “Cologne” utilizes the entire Ben Folds orchestra with seven pianos and a classical choir.

Add experimental sounds to the mix, dramatic dialogue and a duet with Regina Spektor — appropriately titled “You Don’t Know Me” — and Folds’s approach is even more of a departure from the norm. Way to Normal provides a not-so-normal Ben Folds album, bringing in new elements but successfully holding onto his artistic point of view. A valiant attempt at faking us out, Ben, but we still hear the old Folds we know and love.

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