Lonely Avenue

Here’s a good Christmas present: Lonely Avenue, Ben Folds’s latest album and a collaboration with the author of High Fidelity and other popular works of fiction, Mr. Nick Hornby. Anna is a very wise gift-giver.

I’m a long-time F0lds fan, and began by wanting to say in this post that Hornby is not as good a lyricist as my erstwhile idol. On repeated listens, however, I began to drift towards his merely being ‘different’; further listens still and it’s hard not to hear in, for instance, ‘Levi Johnston’s Blues’ – “I’m a fuckin’ redneck, I live to hang out with the boys / Play some hockey, do some fishing, kill some moose” – precisely the tone Folds has brought to much of his work. Likewise, ‘Claire’s Ninth’ begins precisely like a song from Rockin’ The Suburbs filtered through ‘Alice Childress’: “So / She stands / And waits / And waits at the school gate.”

If anything, collaborating with Hornby – with whom Folds made contact after reading about himself in 2002’s 31 Songs – has given Folds a new lease of life. Some of his solo work has at time concealed his preternatural facility beneath mere strained invention (Way to Normal, I’m looking at you). “‘Belinda’ has been a mother fucker,” Folds gripes in an email to Hornby quoted in the disc’s liner notes (of the deluxe edition, at any rate – Anna wins again). You sense him setting this high bar throughout: the lyrics and song briefs provided to him by Hornby are the seeds of songs Folds can make his own, but also represent challenges he may not have otherwise considered tackling. The twists and turns of ‘Password’, in which Folds pens a sweet soul song with a Willow-the-Wisp structure, ends with a classic Folds kiss-off – “One day I won’t even remember your face” – but sounds nothing like any other song he’s written.

‘Picture Window’, too, sounds like a great lost Ben Folds Five song (“They checked into the hospital New Year’s Eve / Nothing to be done about that / Rainbows, daffodils, she’s not naive / Symbolism’s all crap”). These are lyrics identifiably the work of a novelist as opposed to a songwriter – at times, they lack the doubleness of Folds’s own specialist writing. On ‘Doc Pomus’, for instance, we get, “Man in a wheelchair in the lobby of the Forrest / With frighters, hustlers, hard-up millionaires / Mobsters, cops, whores, pimps and Marxists / All human life is there”. But, conversely, this directness frees Folds up to write melodies more memorable than many he’s written in years. Lonely Avenue may well be a more consistent record than any he’s produced as a solo artist: there may not be a ‘Late’ on this disc, but nor is there an infinitely more forgettable ‘Time’ or ‘Prison Food’.

Hornby tells us in his liner notes that the title of this record is taken from Alex Halberstadt’s biography of Doc Pomus (many of the LP’s songs fictionalise real people – Saskia Hamilton gets a namecheck, too). But it is also about people searching in some way for meaning, pattern and identity – that is to say it is written by Nick Hornby. We salute him, however, for in Ben Folds he has found a collaborator whose best work is no longer quite so far behind him.

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5 thoughts on “Lonely Avenue

  1. precisely the tone Folds has brought to much of his work

    It’s also an adaptation of Johnston’s MySpace page, apparently, which I thinks speak better of Folds than Hornby.

    But yes, it’s a good album, growing on me all the time. Not quite better than Songs for Silverman yet, though…

  2. It’s also an adaptation of Johnston’s MySpace page

    Hornby points this out in the liner notes – I didn’t know it was practically a direct quote, though. Brilliant!

    Not quite better than Songs for Silverman yet, though…

    I swing both ways on this question: as I say, it may not scale the heights, but it doesn’t plumb the depths, either, does it? It has consistency on its side.

  3. I’ve been listening to this a lot this week, so finally feel like I can comment!

    I agree with the idea that this is a much more consistent Folds album than we’re used to. He seems to me to have found the challenge of writing and arranging of melodies for someone else’s lyrics to be highly engaging – there’s a concentrated ‘Foldsness’ to most of the tracks that really hits quite hard.

    Having said that, I do have issues with it, and they’re mainly to do with Hornby’s half of the deal. I think on occasions he really manages to convince – some of the lines are a canny impression of Folds himself (the whole of Picture Window springs to mind here) but at other times I think it doesn’t work. Levi Johnston’s Blues is my main sticking point, I find it’s weak name calling a little beneath both of them, regardless of whether it quotes from the guy’s MySpace page (though the arrangement almost saves it – those strings!!). I also think Hornby occasionally asks a bit too much of Folds in terms of cramming in syllables – though there’s a sadistic pleasure in hearing him trying to shovel them in to the like of Password.

    Hm, that all makes it seem like I don’t really like the record – I promise I do. It’s been on constant rotation. I hope it’s just the start of a partnership worth watching, rather than an interesting one off!

  4. I seem to be the only person I know who doesn’t think “Picture Window” is a standout track, if not the standout track. I like it just fine, but it has utterly failed to earworm me — it just slides out of mind when I try to recall the tune. “Levi Johnston’s Blues”, on the other hand, much as I have slight ethical qualms about fictionalising the guy, wins me over every time. The real highlights are “Claire’s Ninth”, “Your Dogs”, and “From Above”, though.

    But yes, I’d definitely like to hear another collaborative album from this pair.

  5. Niall, I totally had you fingered as a fan of “Claire’s Ninth” (your love of “Your Dogs” is inexplicable, though). Agreed on the difficult brilliance of “LJB”, mind, and I’m down with Andy and the rest of the multitude, meanwhile, on the quality of “Picture Window”, though – although I’ll allow that it sounds at times like a pastiche of a Ben Folds song.

    And whilst we’re on the subject of best song, can I make a plea for “Password”?

    By the way, isn’t this the joy of the record? For the first time in ages, here’s a Ben Folds record from which different people might pick different favourite songs. Previously, whilst we might have quibbled on the relative poorness of “Prison Food”, everyone knew that “Late” or “Landed” were the best songs on the CD. Hooray for an album which can support a debate like this, says I.

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