Way Too Normal
Ben Folds Delivers His First Disappointment

I really hate having to do this.

Writing negative reviews, especially when it comes to my favorite artists, is always a little uncomfortable for me. It’s like having to tell a loved one they have a drinking problem. I feel like I have to be absolutely sure about it – do I really dislike this record, or was I just having a bad day? Did I wake up too late, skip my morning run, and sleepwalk through my first listen? I have to be sure. I have to listen again and again, in optimum conditions, picking apart my own reactions before putting pen to paper. (Or typing out on a screen… you get me, right?)

It’s one thing to come up with a negative review of a band I don’t really like, such as Weezer. I mean, their last album was so insanely bad that to praise it, even a little, would be dishonest. But it’s a special kind of pain for me when I have to attack artists I genuinely love. When an album I’ve spent months looking forward to just doesn’t cut it – in fact, when it’s borderline horrible – I’m not just disappointed, I’m crushed.

And I just have to grit my teeth and tell it like it is.

I’ve known for a while that I would have to do this. Even before laying down my cash for Way to Normal, Ben Folds’ third solo album, I had come to the conclusion that something vital was missing. Ben Folds first captured my ear 13 years ago, with his first smart, smarmy album with the Five, and he hasn’t made a bad record since. He has an uncanny knack for balancing his fratboy side with his inner storyteller, making snotty piano-pop gems that tap into a deep current of emotion.

On his last record, 2005’s Songs for Silverman, Folds upset that balance a bit, but the result was his most mature and beautiful album, full of first-person observations and gorgeous melodies. (And it contained “Gracie,” the sweetest and most genuine father-daughter song I’ve ever heard.) I suppose I should have expected a swing of the pendulum back the other way, but I didn’t think it would swing back this much, especially given Folds’ recent divorce.

Way to Normal is a fun little trifle of an album. Or at least, that’s probably what Folds thinks it is. Many of these songs remind me of the extemporaneous jams he makes up in concert, songs about the town he’s in or a funny sign he saw on the way to the venue. Ben Folds the storyteller is almost completely absent. Ben Folds the social critic is here, sporadically, but his wit has been blunted. The majority of the running time has been given over to Ben Folds the foul-mouthed buffoon, and while that guy’s fun in limited doses – his cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” for example – 40 minutes of him gets wearying.

Way to Normal’s first track, “Hiroshima,” lays down a lame “Bennie and the Jets” pastiche while Folds describes falling off the stage and smacking his head before a concert. It’s almost symbolic – the rest of the record plays like the work of a man with brain damage. The songs are short and stupid and surface-level. “Errant Dog,” “Brainwascht,” “Bitch Went Nuts,” “The Frown Song”… these are all well below Folds’ usual standard, musically and lyrically.

There are a few I like. “Cologne” is a sweetly sad tale of separation, with a nice melody, but it’s marred by a dated verse about Lisa Nowak, the astronaut who drove cross-country to kill her boyfriend. (Really, in the middle of this lovely song, Folds sings, “Says here an astronaut put on a pair of diapers and drove 18 hours…”) First single “You Don’t Know Me,” a duet with Regina Spektor, is jaunty and memorable, and closer “Kylie From Connecticut” is the closest this album comes to a classic Folds story-song.

Everything else is just… slight. “Dr. Yang” is fun, and contains a lightning-fast piano solo, while “The Frown Song” has a groovy chorus, despite stupid lyrics about “fucking a guru.” And “Effington” makes the most of its one-note joke – “Effington might be a wonderful effing place” – with the album’s best chorus. But most of these songs just sound easy, tossed off instead of lived-in. His targets are easy, his insults lame, his insights absent.

“Bitch Went Nuts,” for example, has an interesting premise. Ask women why relationships fail, says a man with an exaggerated Asian accent in the intro, and they will give you a hundred different reasons. Ask men, and they will all give you the title phrase. But the song is lousy – “The bitch went nuts, she stabbed my basketball, and the speakers to my stereo…” It contains none of the anger and pathos of “Song for the Dumped,” and its chorus, during which old girlfriends line up at his door with pitchforks and “scores and scores to settle,” is painfully unmemorable.

The shame is that Way to Normal may be Folds’ best-sounding album. You might expect a collection of thrown-together ditties like this to have that ragged, old Ben Folds Five sound to it, but you’d be wrong. This is a gleaming pop record, with some nice steps forward for Folds the producer. “You Don’t Know Me” has a terrific string arrangement, intro “Before Cologne” makes use of scraping piano strings for color, and “Free Coffee” sounds like it’s performed largely on a John Cage-style prepared piano. Everything sounds great, which is why it’s almost tragic when the songs fall flat.

Way to Normal (a reference to Normal, Illinois, by the way) is the first Ben Folds album that has left me indifferent. It doesn’t move me emotionally, it doesn’t knock me out musically. It just kind of starts, and then ends. I don’t think it’s just me, either – I’ve gone back and listened to other dumb-ditty Ben Folds songs, like “Dumped” and “Julianne” and “Uncle Walter.” They have wit and verve. The songs on Way to Normal sound like the cast-offs that landed on Naked Baby Photos.

It really does pain me to write this. Ben Folds has written a good half-dozen of my favorite songs of the last decade, but nothing on Way to Normal comes close. I hope this is just a blip, a series of bad days, a lapse in judgment, a dry spell. The album is kind of fun, no doubt, but it’s like having a master chef serve you a cheeseburger. You know he can do better, that he’s slumming it, and all you can do is hope he’ll dig deeper next time.

* * * * *

Okay, time for the third quarter report. A couple of things. First, this year has been pretty amazing so far. You’ll notice number one hasn’t changed since June, but there are plenty of third-quarter releases in the list this time, all wonderful discs deserving of your attention.

Second, I have decided not to include Marillion’s Happiness is the Road yet, even though I’ve heard it a few dozen times and I’m pretty sure it would rank highly. The official release date is October 20, so it’s technically a fourth-quarter album, and besides, I haven’t even heard the real thing yet, just low-quality downloaded tracks. Expect a review when this thing lands in my mailbox, and count on seeing it in the final list in December.

And now, the Third Quarter Report. If I had to make my top 10 list right now, here’s what it would look like:

10. Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs.
9. Sigur Ros, Med Sud I EyrumVid Spilum Endlaust.
8. Coldplay, Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends.
7. Amanda Palmer, Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
6. Vampire Weekend.
5. The Feeling, Join With Us.
4. Bryan Scary and the Shredding Tears, Flight of the Knife.
3. Brian Wilson, That Lucky Old Sun.
2. Aimee Mann, @#%&*! Smilers.
1. Fleet Foxes.

Honorable mentions go to Conor Oberst, Randy Newman, R.E.M., Lindsey Buckingham, Counting Crows and Joe Jackson. Expect the list to change in the coming months, of course, but even if I were forced to end the year now and post this as the final draft, I’d be pretty happy. There are some amazing records on there.

Next week, Ani Difranco, Todd Rundgren, and maybe Oasis.

See you in line Tuesday morning.