2008 has been a busy year for Ben Folds.
Besides reuniting with his old band, Ben Folds Five, he has released a new solo album, “Way to Normal.” The album combines the quirky playfulness of Folds’ older albums — “Naked Baby Photos,” among others — with the somber, mature overtones of his recent work, especially “Songs for Silverman.” While this stylistic and emotional blend has the potential to produce a fresh sound, the effort largely fails. “Way to Normal” presents an unoriginal social criticism coupled with angry, often-obscene ranting.
Ben Folds is no newcomer to social commentary. On the 2006 LP “Supersunnyspeedgraphic,” he lamented American consumerism and hypocrisy: “See that asshole with a peace sign on his license plate / Giving me the finger and running me out of his lane / God made us number one because he loves us the best / Well, maybe He should go bless someone else for a while, give us a rest.”
Musicians have explored this topic to the point of exhaustion, but it is still significant and, if approached creatively, is a powerful public criticism. More problematic is how Folds repeats this sentiment on “Way to Normal,” almost verbatim in some instances. On “Free Coffee,” he reflects on his life, wealth and American society: “Eating an ice cream cone / Texting with my thumbs / Flipping off the asshole / Who pulled into my lane.” This material was unoriginal the first time he used it. Rather than reinforcing these ideas or exploring them in different ways, this repetition beats the sentiment to death.
While a few tracks on this album are powerful for the naked emotion they convey — “Cologne,” for example — on the whole, the album sounds more like an angry rant than a subtle social commentary or emotional reflection. In “Bitch Went Nuts,” he rants about an ex-girlfriend, singing, “The bitch went nuts / She stabbed my basketball / And the speakers to my stereo.” And this anger and social criticism are not constructive. Individual songs fail to synthesize into an album with a broad, useful purpose. Of course, music does not necessarily need to have profound, universal ideals, but “Way to Normal” obviously tries to make such a statement and wildly misses the mark.
The album overemphasizes lyrics, and the music itself is understated. Such imbalance is especially unfortunate because many songs are catchy and well-written, and Folds explores more interesting synthesizer sounds than in any of his earlier works. But the album is almost completely devoid of the lengthy, virtuosic piano solos characteristic of his earlier work — also unfortunate, because that is where Folds is arguably strongest.
“Way to Normal” attempts to reconcile Folds’s older style — absurd, funny, carefree — with his recent emotionally mature, mellow work. But these features do not unify coherently, and the result is an illogical combination of humor and anger that becomes cynical, self-deprecating and even petty.