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.