Growing up, Ben Folds probably got his ass kicked. A lot. But who would have guessed that the same piano lessons that were the cause of his daily beatings would prepare him to one day release what will perhaps be the greatest album of 2001?
One of the most unlikely success stories of the late ’90s, Ben Folds Five (actually a trio, for all you Group IV majors) brought their piano pop and love of irony into the mainstream with their second album “Whatever & Ever Amen.” The album’s ode to abortion, “Brick,” became a radio smash, and the record quickly shot to platinum status.
By the time 1999’s “The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner” was recorded, however, internal conflict was slowly fracturing the band. The album, predominantly bizarre and self-indulgent, was a deserved commercial flop. The following year, BFF announced their split, and the group’s namesake moved to Australia.
“Rockin’ the Suburbs,” Folds’ first solo album, is a return to what he does best: writing powerful pop songs fueled, often simultaneously, by both cynicism and innocence. While “Whatever & Ever Amen” is clearly the product of an angry young man, “Rockin'” seems to be created by his older, wiser counterpart. As Folds has matured and mellowed, his music has become more melodic and evocative without losing the edge that makes his music so compelling.
A Ben Folds song is nearly impossible to categorize. Equal parts Broadway revue and Billy Joel, Folds has an amazing ability to take a simple melody or idea and turn it into something incredible that leaves the listener wondering, “Why didn’t I write this song?” Every song on “Rockin'” stands on its own as a strong tune. Rarely does the listener feel the need to skip tracks – a complaint that could be made of the previous BFF records.
“Rockin'” opens with “Annie Waits,” a melancholy yet playful tune that sets the pace for the rest of the album’s songs. The driving piano, the simple rhythm section, Folds’s beautiful falsetto and harmonies: the gang’s all here. While “Whatever & Ever Amen” is somewhat schizophrenic in its mix of loud rockers and gentle ballads, this album finds a way to reconcile the two in songs like “Losing Lisa” and “Gone.”
The album is a lyrical triumph. Folds focuses on the theme of growing up and growing old while deftly dodging the clich*. Rather than weave his tales from the first person (as he does almost exclusively on his previous albums), Folds chooses to play the narrator on much of this new album, creating something of a musical “Spoon River Anthology.”
The major exception to this trend is the album’s title track and first single, a song I hated at first listen but have since come to love. In this guitar-driven number (a first in Ben Folds’s studio career), Folds lashes out at rap-rock musicians like Limp Bizkit with a hilarious parody of white-boy angst. The song manages to borrow shamelessly from the genre while keeping its tongue firmly in cheek. And how could you not love a song that opens with the lyrics, “Let me tell ya’ll what it’s like / Being male, middle-class and white / It’s a bitch, if you don’t believe / Listen up to my new CD.”
The album’s best track, however, is “The Luckiest.” The most beautiful song to be released in recent memory, it packs passion and power into a simple arrangement consisting solely of piano, strings, and Folds’s haunting voice.
Especially in the wake of the horrible events of the last few weeks, it is nearly impossible to listen to “The Luckiest” and not be overcome by emotion. For this moment alone, “Rockin'” is worth anyone’s $16.
With the release of “Rockin’ the Suburbs” Ben Folds establishes himself as a post-modern Elton John. One can only hope that Folds has yet to reach the zenith of his career, and will continue to release albums full of his potent blend of hope and sarcasm.