Who the Hell is Silverman?
Ben Folds Grows Up, Slows Down and Makes Good

I had a terrifying thought the other day.

In a little more than a month, I will be able to look back wistfully at this past year and say, with all honesty, “Back when I was 30…”

I’m old. There’s no getting around it. Soon I will start watching reruns of Matlock and Diagnosis: Murder and game shows. I will forget where I put my glasses, search for them for an hour, and finally find them on my head. I will read Danielle Steele books and believe them to be well-written, and I will often read them twice, forgetting that I had read them the first time. And I will only listen to soft rock (when I “rock” at all), like later-period Elton John. (Nothing before Rock of the Westies, thanks.)

Perhaps that’s why I like the new Ben Folds album, Songs for Silverman. The young punks seem to hate this one, as it contains the least amount of piano showboating and ironic sneering of any record he’s made. There are no joke songs, there’s no wiseassery, and most of the tracks are slow and pretty. There is no “Underground,” no “Song for the Dumped,” no “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” There isn’t even a “Fired.” Fans and critics who have been hoping against hope for a return to the style of the first two Ben Folds Five albums are out of luck. He’s moved on, he’s grown up.

But that doesn’t matter much when his craft is in such fine form. I admit to hopping on the worry train when Folds’ series of EPs (2002’s Speed Graphic and Sunny 16, and last year’s Super D) turned out so well. Would he have anything left in the tank when it came time to record the proper album? Would it be a collection of re-recordings and castoffs? As it turns out, there is one re-recording (more on that in a bit), but these Songs make the ones on the EPs sound like the throwaways. These are carefully molded, seriously reflective tunes that address themes far more grown-up than asking for a black t-shirt back, with melodies that only sink in after a few listens.

Can Ben Folds pull off a ballad-heavy record without slipping into middle-aged elevator music? Well, it helps to note that “slow and pretty” has always been in his repertoire – “Boxing,” “Selfless, Cold and Composed,” “Evaporated,” and, yes, even his one hit, “Brick.” His solo debut, 2001’s Rockin the Suburbs, belied its smirking title and delivered half an album’s worth of crooning character studies – “Still Fighting It,” “Fred Jones Part 2,” “Carrying Cathy,” etc. That he’s always balanced the sweetness with a dose of frat-boy winking, even on the EPs, may lead some to the conclusion that something’s missing from Silverman.

They’re right, of course, but what’s missing is a sense of emotional detachment in the songs. Consider this: Silverman is the first Folds album that has no main characters. Whereas Suburbs introduced us to Annie, Zak, Sara, Fred, Stan, Lisa, Cathy and Lucretia, Silverman is almost entirely in the first person. Ben isn’t telling stories this time, he’s inhabiting them, and the difference that connection makes is remarkable. He’s not standing outside this record, he’s at its center, and the result is 11 of his most considered, affecting songs.

Well, the exception may be “Bastard,” the opening track, which does tell the tale of a curmudgeon trying to recapture his youth – “The ‘Whiz Man’ never fit you like the ‘Whiz Kid’ did…” It is the most upbeat, Ben Folds Five-ish song here, complete with a dexterous solo over a Brian Wilson-worthy bed of backing harmonies. The classic sound is augmented by his new Five, in a way – bassist Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson. It’s obvious, though, that where Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee were equal participants, the new guys are hired hands playing on a solo record. This is Folds’ show all the way.

The other story-song, “Jesusland,” takes a different angle than its title would suggest. This is not a political diatribe, but rather a travelogue – the lyrics follow Jesus as he walks around the south, taking it in: “They drop your name, but no one knows your face, billboards quoting things you never said…” The song sounds like the offspring of “The Ascent of Stan” and “Mess,” a wide vista of dust bowl grit buoyed by a breezy piano figure.

“Late” addresses Elliott Smith, but from the point of view of a fellow musician who didn’t know the man, but enjoyed his work. It’s the furthest thing from a maudlin eulogy, staying personal and refusing to canonize Smith: “The songs you wrote got me through a lot, just want to tell you that, but it’s too late…” “Trusted” explores a poisoned relationship, but from deep within it, and it revolves around a nasty bit of honesty: “It seems to me if you can’t trust, you can’t be trusted.” And “Landed” takes place after a breakup (perhaps of that same relationship), and revels in the details: “Down comes the reign of the telephone czar, it’s okay to call, I’ll answer for myself…”

The one song he re-worked from the EPs is Speed Graphic’s “Give Judy My Notice,” which I thought was the best song on any of them. Unfortunately, the new version drowns the aching loveliness of the piano-vocal original in Eagles-like guitar and backing vocals. I’d probably love this, if I hadn’t heard the first version, but as it is, “Judy” is the album’s one stumble. Still, it’s hard to fault such a well-written song, one that holds up next to the other ballads here. I’m glad this is the only repeat, too, even though I wish more people could hear “All You Can Eat” and “Wandering.”

The album ends with a pair of dramatic epics, “Time” and the oddly named “Prison Food,” which has a bridge straight out of the Yes songbook. Still, with all the gravitas flying around, my favorite thing here is “Gracie,” a tiny lullaby Folds wrote for his daughter. Now, I’ve heard a hundred or more father-daughter songs, and the trap they often fall into is one of general over-sentiment, as if the song simply must be about every father and daughter on earth. This one is very specifically about Ben and Gracie, and full of lovely images. At one point Folds sings, “You nodded off in my arms watching TV, I won’t move you an inch even though my arm’s asleep,” and you can just see it. It’s moments like that that elevate Folds’ more serious songwriting – see “The Luckiest” for some of the most off-kilter yet heartwarming declarations of love you’ll ever hear – and this album is full of them.

So yeah, he’s not rocking out on Silverman, throwing his piano bench into the keys and swearing like he used to. He’s grown up, and since I’ve grown up, too, in the years since I heard “Jackson Cannery,” I appreciate his evolution here. Folds probably would have been more successful with his critics had he released all 26 new recordings as a double album, one that would have balanced the more mature tone of Silverman with the old-school smartass style of the EPs. Still, Ben Folds the craftsman is in ample evidence on Silverman, even if Ben Folds the merry prankster isn’t, and I’ve always admired that guy more than his grinning counterpart.

I’m fond of saying this, but one day, Ben Folds is going to make an out-of-the-park fantastic gem of an album, perfect from start to finish. Songs for Silverman is not that album, not quite, but it puts him a few steps closer. It is, however, the work of an artist trying to shed his bratty side without losing his wit and charm, and by and large, he succeeds – these are the most thought-out and admirable songs he’s written, and that’s more important to me nowadays than how fast he can play, or how easily he can offend my grandmother. Songs for Silverman is the coming-out party for Ben Folds, Serious Artist, and if this is something you’d hear in your dentist’s office, then I’d like to meet your dentist. He has good taste.

* * * * *

Okay, I’ve said a bunch of nice things about the album, and now here’s the curmudgeonly rant about the format. Accuse me of being set in my ways if you must, but I just hate this new DualDisc thing.

Songs for Silverman is available in two editions – there’s the “Deluxe Package,” which combines a CD and a DVD in a clumsy-looking and easily damaged book twice the size of a normal CD case, and nestles them in little pockets that scratch the hell out of them when you try to take them out. This is all second-hand info for me, though, since I bought the other edition, the DualDisc.

If you haven’t heard of them, DualDiscs are double-sided CDs, with a DVD where the label would go on a regular CD. This allows the record company to increase content (that you can’t download before the release date) and decrease manufacturing costs. Two discs of stuff, one disc to burn and package. Makes sense on paper, but practically, these things suck.

The first thing you’ll notice, if you’re paying attention, is that the “Compact Disc Digital Audio” logo is nowhere on your DualDisc package. That means, in record company language, that “the audio side of this disc does not conform to CD specifications, and therefore not all DVD and CD players will play the audio side of this disc.” In practice, here’s what that means – it’s a crapshoot whether your stereo or your computer will even recognize that you’ve inserted this disc.

Now, I have three CD players at my disposal. My favorite is my computer, of course, since it’s hooked up to my iPod, but naturally, my computer won’t read this disc. If I want to bring Songs for Silverman with me on the iPod, I have to buy it again, either in “Deluxe” form or from the iTunes music store. (That is, if I want to stick to the letter of the law – the other option is to illegally download it, of course, and the record companies may be surprised how much file-sharing goes up with this new format.)

But that’s not the end of the story, oh no. I have two other CD players – one in my car, and one vertically-loaded 25-CD changer in my office. Neither of these players are recommended for use with DualDiscs, and here’s why – the DualDisc is just that little bit thicker than a regular CD, so the mechanisms that load and unload the discs will scratch the DVD side to crap. And, on rare occasions (meaning twice since Tuesday for me), the disc will get stuck in the player, forcing one to scratch it up even more to get it out.

Luckily, I watched the DVD content first, after realizing that the CD side wasn’t going to play in my computer. It’s a 25-minute documentary, a 5.1 surround mix of the album, and a bonus track (“Landed” with an orchestra). Given the choice, I have selected the CD side as the one I want to keep, since I can’t play this album without scratching up the DVD.

Like I said, DualDiscs aren’t a bad idea, from a record company standpoint, but the concept needs some work. And if this new format requires new players to deal with it, then it’s only common sense that the companies should also make a standard version available, one that plays in every system. Otherwise, they’re just going to piss people off, and kill this format before it gets off the ground. In the case of Songs for Silverman, I don’t want to have to shell out for a clunky “special” package just to get a disc that plays for me without damage. I’m glad I’m not a Bruce Springsteen fan – his new album, Devils and Dust, is only available in DualDisc. Too fast, guys, especially for something with so many little kinks to be ironed out.

Anyway. Next week, the Eels, Aimee Mann, Nine Inch Nails or Ryan Adams. Or all four. Depends on how I feel.

See you in line Tuesday morning.