Our grandkids will be asking us about this.
That’s what, in the final analysis, strikes me the most about this terrible tragedy. Thousands are dead, including a girl I went to high school with and the uncle of one of my best friends, but beyond the body count and the personal effect this has had on me, I can’t help thinking about John F. Kennedy. Or, more precisely, the fact that every member of my father’s generation can remember where they were when Kennedy was assassinated. This is our unifying, defining national nightmare, one we will be discussing for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, it won’t get any worse than this.
I’ve finally realized that the emotional shutdown I’ve been in since hearing of the attack is exactly what the terrorists wanted. If we don’t bounce back and resume our lives, then they’ve won. That’s why, despite the fact that my whole being is fighting to slip into despair, I’m going to keep writing and posting these trivial little missives. Our lives are made of these things, and ceasing to keep up with them would be, at least for me, an admission of defeat that I’m not willing to make.
Fuck ‘em. Business as usual.
One day, Ben Folds will make a truly great album.
It will be filled with all the passion, wit and sheer musical skill of which his fans (myself included) know that he is capable. While it probably won’t sell a quadrillion copies, it will stand with the greatest works of his idols: Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, Billy Joel’s The Stranger, Queen’s A Night at the Opera. Most importantly, it will be the crowning achievement in what promises to be a spectacular career.
All of which is to say that Rockin’ the Suburbs, his debut solo disc, is not that album. On the first couple of listens, in fact, Suburbs barely seems to hold its own with the three stellar records by the Ben Folds Five, his band for the last eight years. Give it time to sink in, though, and the album will emerge as what it undoubtedly is: the first in a series of lovely pop albums that will, God willing, comprise that aforementioned spectacular career. It’s a delicate promise of things to come.
That’s not to say it’s not worth picking up. Folds is a rare breed these days: an unabashedly pop songwriter. I don’t mean pop in the ‘N Sync vein, either. Folds plays and composes with a style that has been informed by the last 100 years of popular songwriters. His tunes contain big, memorable choruses, sweetly stacked harmonies and a sense of songcraft that’s missing from the majority of acts these days. Folds grew up during the age of albums, recordings that were labored over and fine-tuned to perfection. Like Jellyfish before him, Folds takes his biggest cues from the Beatles, the greatest pop band to ever walk the earth.
Folds is also the most unapologetically emotional of the volley of ironic songwriters that emerged in the ‘90s. His songs are often stories of heartbroken, lonely people reaching out in the only ways they know how, and it’s clear that he loves each of these characters. It’s never certain how much of himself he injects into this motley crew of lost souls, but he lavishes each of them with an amount of attention usually reserved for the autobiographical. All four Ben Folds albums are moving snapshots of modern life, and whether or not they represent his life is immaterial.
Eight new characters join the cast on this album, or at least eight new names are presented to us. The opener, “Annie Waits,” introduces us to a woman on the verge of changing her life: “Annie waits for the last time, just the same as the last time…” Mirroring Folds’ own transformation into a solo artist, many of these seven characters is approaching the precipice of a life-changing decision. “The Ascent of Stan” details the introspection of a one-time hippie who has embraced the establishment: “Being poor was not such a drag in hindsight, and you wondered why your father was so resigned, now you don’t wonder anymore.”
“Fred Jones Part 2” (a semi-sequel to “Cigarette” on Whatever and Ever Amen) gives us a man whose decision has been made for him: “He’s packed all his things and he’s put them in boxes, things that remind him that life has been good, Twenty-five years he’s worked at the paper, a man’s here to take him downstairs, and I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time.” Along the way, Jones lets us in on some of his insights: “Life barrels on like a runaway train, where the passengers change but they don’t change anything…”
Elsewhere we meet the title characters of “Zak and Sara,” medication-addicted teens who are invariably described as “Zak without a ‘c’” and “Sara with no ‘h’.” “Fired” gives us a woman named Lucretia who dismisses her whole staff because she wants to be alone. These stories are accompanied by Folds’ trademark piano, mostly in mournful, slow settings. (The one jarring exception is the title track, inexplicably the first single.) “Fired,” in fact, is the one song in which Folds cuts loose on the keyboards for a few exhilarating bars. While he is undoubtedly his generation’s finest balladeer, it would have been nice to hear him displaying his piano-pounding talents a la “Song for the Dumped” and “Philosophy” a bit more here.
That said, Rockin’ the Suburbs contains two absolute masterpieces. The first is “Still Fighting It,” a heart-wrenching letter from a father to his young son. This song can’t be excerpted, so here are the full lyrics:
Good morning son, I am a bird
Wearing a brown polyester shirt
You want a Coke? Maybe some fries?
The roast beef combo’s only $9.95
But it’s okay, you don’t have to pay, I’ve got all the change
Good morning son, 20 years from now
Maybe we’ll both sit down and have a few beers
And I can tell you all about today
And how I picked you up and everything changed
It was pain, sunny days and rain,
I knew you’d feel the same things
You’ll try and try
And one day you’ll fly away from me…
Everybody knows it hurts to grow up
And everybody does, so weird to be back here
Let me tell you what, the years go on
And we’re still fighting it
And you’re so much like me, I’m sorry…
This beautiful verse sits atop of one of Folds’ finest melodies, easily outdistancing any of his previous piano-and-strings ballads. The other masterpiece, “Carrying Cathy,” takes a similar tack, evolving midway through into a glorious dream that gingerly touches back down on earth for the final verse, which gets maximum impact from repeating the title phrase. Again, no excerpting allowed:
Her window was hung like a painting
She worried it might come to life, she stared for hours
So obsessed was I, and self-absorbed that I
Didn’t see that she was crying
There was always someone carrying Cathy
There were times when I would find myself saying to friends,
You don’t understand, she’s different when it’s just me and her
And I’d close the door and I’d try to hang on
As she sank into the dark, I was over my head
There was always someone carrying Cathy
We gave you everything, you could have done anything
We gave you everything, you could have been anything
But to imagine a fall with no one at all to catch you
There’d always been someone…
Then one night she climbed into the picture frame
Out into the frozen air and out of sight…
I woke up sad from this dream I’ve been having
The last couple nights or so
With her father, her brothers, we’re all at the funeral
Carrying a box through the rain
And somebody says, yeah, it’s always been this way
There was always someone carrying Cathy.
I present these in full because they are the finest sets of lyrics I’ve come across this year, and they bode well for the future of this wisecracking troubadour. Another promising sign is “The Luckiest,” the closing track and the first true autobiographical piece Folds has written. It’s an imaginatively sentimental ode to his wife, which he sings from the heart. Consider one more piece of Foldspeak before I put these lyrics away:
Next door there’s an old man who lived into his nineties
And one day passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for a couple of days and passed away
I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you
That I know we belong
That I am the luckiest
Like the best songwriters, Folds crafts stories full of fascinating, lived-in characters that mirror his own sentiments. “The Luckiest” is the first time Folds has stepped away from his grand cast and shone the spotlight on his own emotions, and that he carries it off as well as he does shows incalculable promise for the career to come. Folds never gives in to mawkishness, the most common pitfall of the piano-based songwriter. The tunes are sentimental, but unfailingly inventive.
I’ve lavished a lot of space here on what’s most likely going to be remembered as a tentative first step in a lengthy solo career. Rockin’ the Suburbs is one of the finest records of the year, though, on every level, and if he had not prefaced it with three of the best records in my collection, I’d be hailing it as masterful. Someday, mark my words, Ben Folds is going to deliver on the promise of this album and create one of the best pop records ever made, one in which every song is as stunning as the best work on Rockin’ the Suburbs. Watching him get there will be half the fun.
Next up, Tori.
See you in line Tuesday morning, and God bless America.