To this point, Ben Folds' entire solo career took place within the context of his third and (to date) longest marriage, to Frally Hynes. Folds' relationship with Hynes undoubtedly did much to shape aspects of his songwriting; "The Luckiest," from 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs, certainly seems to refer to her, and she also has writing and vocal credits on that album. Her voice pops up on "Dog," from the 2003 Speed Graphic EP, and she appears on the cover of 2004's Super D, which also includes a song called "Adelaide," a tribute of sorts to where Folds and Hynes lived at one time.
But in 2006, they separated, and officially divorced in 2007. Folds has since re-married, but one might rightly wonder if the after-effects of his divorce would come out on Way to Normal, Folds' new album, especially given the nearly three-and-a-half-year hiatus since the release of 2005's Songs for Silverman. Folds was quoted as saying that everything he wanted to say about the divorce in song was on Silverman, and looking back you can see how that might be the case; Silverman is a relatively melancholy album, and it has a number of songs that, in retrospect, could perhaps be read as early evidence that Folds' marriage was only going to last so much longer (and the separation did come the year after Silverman's release) - "You to Thank" is about a rushed-into marriage; "Landed" is about escaping a bad relationship; "Trusted" is about a fracturing relationship; "Give Judy My Notice" is about leaving a bad relationship; "Time" is about the immediate fallout of the end of a relationship. Seen in that light, it isn't necessarily that subtle, though at the time it just seemed like these songs could have been more abstract or drawn from moments in Folds' past (as he had already gone through two divorces).
But Way to Normal sort of has one foot in each aspect of Folds' recent history. On the one hand, it kicks off with some of Folds' most upbeat, up-tempo piano rock in years; on the other, there certainly seems to be lingering bitterness and sadness that comes out in several songs. Folds has never been afraid to write about personal issues - let's not forget that "Brick," the biggest hit spawned by Ben Folds Five, is about taking a girlfriend to get an abortion - and he certainly seems to have mined his life for yet more material here.
Track 1 - "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)"
The title of the track is an obvious reference to Elton John's "Bennie and the Jets," possibly because the main piano riff has some resemblance to the John song, as well as the use of concert audience noise (more prominently in "Hiroshima," which actually uses the crowd to sing the chorus hook later in the track). The story related in the song is a recounting of an actual moment on tour when Folds fell off the stage in Japan and ended up getting a concussion. It's all rather literal and straightforward, but then so is "Brick." The "oh-oh-oh-oh" and "They're watching me, watching me fall" of the chorus are almost ridiculously infectious, and when your goal is to engage a listener, it's hard to do much better for an opener than a song that virtually demands audience participation.
Track 2 - "Dr. Yang"
One of two straight "social commentary" tracks, in which Folds ridicules what he appears to consider a hypochondriac interest in alternative medicine. (One line goes "I might be dying / Or maybe I've got too much time," and the character singing tries out at least three different methods of finding out what's wrong with himself before eventually making his way from Dr. Yin, at the start of the song, to the titular Dr. Yang at the conclusion.) It comes off a bit glib, but the peppy, relentless melody and short running time (around 2:30) make it more than palatable.
Track 3 - "The Frown Song"
The same can't necessarily be said of "The Frown Song," one of the album's weaker tracks. Here Folds takes on the scowling rich people who wear grimaces like fashion accessories, but the song can be a bit of a chore - it contains almost no rhymes outside of the chorus, as though Folds jotted down a few notes and then just sang them. The opening image is evocatively sarcastic - "Tread slowly from the car to the spa like a weary, war-torn refugee / Crossing the border with your starving child; it's a struggle just to get to Shiatsu" - but things don't really improve, aside from the upbeat choruses, which are surely intended to completely shift the mood but sound no less jarring for that. At least they provide a welcome respite from the dentist's drill that accompanies the verses.
Track 4 - "You Don't Know Me"
Here's where Folds' personal life seems to kick in; he starts off by asking the addressee, "Do you ever sit and wonder, it's so strange that we could be together for so long and never know, never care what goes on in the other one's head?" The key moment is around the two-minute mark, when Folds asks, "If I'm the person that you think I am, the clueless chump you seem to think I am, so easily led astray, an errant dog who occasionally escapes and needs a shorter leash, then why the fuck would you want me back? Maybe it's because you don't know me at all." You don't get much more blunt than that, do you? I haven't heard Folds state that this song is about the demise of his marriage to Hynes, but knowing the context it's pretty hard to think of it any other way. As for the song itself, I had to listen to it a few times before it grew on me; the instrumentation isn't exactly classic Folds in the way it leans heavily on strings, but Regina Spektor's voice is a good addition.
Tracks 5 and 6 - "Before Cologne"/"Cologne"
If "You Don't Know Me" is the album's bitter pill, "Cologne" is the track that shows you the other side of a relationship's end. Folds may indeed have been bitter and angry, but surely he was also sad at times, and "Cologne" presents that side, with the singer holed up in a hotel room after walking his erstwhile love to the train, sending her on her way to the other side of the world. Again, whether or not it's 100% autobiographical can be debated, but the reference to the Lisa Nowak story dates the song's events to February 2007, two months before the divorce was finalized (according to Wikipedia). "Cologne" is a tender, aching song, with a typically beautiful piano melody and a good use of backing strings; the lyrics give a real sense of sadness and emptiness, as when Folds describes the Nowak story and then wonders if the woman he's singing to read it, and if "we both might be having the same imaginary conversation." Perhaps even more affecting is at the conclusion of the song's vocals, when Folds simply speaks "That's it." Whether this was an intentional metaphor or whether it was just him marking the end of the vocal track and it got left in, it works perfectly with the song's theme.
Track 7 - "Errant Dog"
Folds bounces back into wackiness with this track, which again seems like it might have some connection to reality given that the title can be found in the lyrics of "You Don't Know Me." It's not exactly a common expression, making one wonder if perhaps it's even something that Folds has actually heard used to describe himself. "Errant Dog" is told from the perspective of a woman who grouses about her husband or boyfriend, yet nonetheless always seems ready to take him back. In line with the question in "You Don't Know Me," "Errant Dog" seems to be somewhat sarcastic about its subject, with the female character unable to decide if "he's my everything, he means the world to me" or whether she should just give up and become a lesbian. As for the music, it's a bit less accessible than many of the other tracks.
Track 8 - "Free Coffee"
Probably the least of all the tracks on the album. It's another piece of social commentary, in which Folds comments on the absurdity of poor people always needing to come up with money for coffee while rich people just get it poured for free. It's a fair point, I guess, but it's not really all that meaningful in the context of the song (it's difficult to tell whether or not Folds sympathizes with the character singing), and while the idea to strap Altoids tins to the piano strings to create the unique sound in the song was an interesting one, it doesn't prove all that listenable in practice.
Track 9 - "Bitch Went Nuts"
"Free Coffee" ends with a disposable bit in which a Zen-master character describes the difference between what happens if you ask a bunch of different women why their relationship failed and what happens if you ask a bunch of men; Folds' theory, such as it is, is that all men just say, "Bitch went nuts." Needless to say, it's not as funny as he thinks it is. The actual "Bitch Went Nuts" track starts with the music, which is a relief. Again, it's perhaps a surprisingly peppy song considering the material; Folds swears the song isn't about Hynes in any way, but surely he must have drawn on past experiences to some degree in coming up with lines like "And then she burned a telepathic link into the brains of all her embittered drones." As such, it's another song that's upbeat enough to sing along to and yet comes off more than a little bitter in the lyrics.
Track 10 - "Brainwascht"
Speaking of which. "Brainwascht" is at least partly a true story, according to Folds; a friend (or former friend) wrote a song about him that he describes as very judgmental and mean, and which, if you trust the lyrics of this song, was based primarily on information from a former girlfriend or wife. Whether the unnamed woman in this song is Hynes is unknowable; it seems possible that Folds is actually referencing an earlier event, since late in the song he snorts at the addressed songwriter by asking if he remembers "in '94 getting blown in your basement while your wife slept," and Folds wasn't married in 1994. It's another pretty bitter track, in which Folds complains that the songwriter didn't bother getting his side of the story but simply was brainwashed by whichever ex-wife or girlfriend he's talking about, but another one that's pretty peppy and otherwise fun if you gloss over the lyrical content.
Track 11 - "Effington"
Presumably inspired by Effingham, Illinois, this is a difficult song to read. The piano part is nice, but do the lyrics actually suggest that Folds wants to settle down in a small town, or is it one big, straight-faced joke told by a sixth-grade sense of humor that finds "Effington" hilarious? Folds starts by musing that "Effington could be a wonderful effing place" and then wonders "Are they effing in their yards, effing in their cars, effing in the trailers and the back roads and the parking lots of Effington?" Droll, indeed. I'm willing to forgive this, because the piano is great and because Folds never cracks a lyrical smile during the track, giving the impression that he's actually serious about finding an appeal in small-town life.
Track 12 - "Kylie from Connecticut"
Way to Normal lacks many of Folds' traditional character sketches, but he ends with a strong one, and another that seems to give a bit of a suggestion as to his mindset: the main character is a woman in a 35-year marriage who sees a note that makes her worry that her husband might be having an affair - except that at the same time, she flashes back to an affair she had some 30 years ago. (At least this is how I interpret the lyrics, though there is some wiggle room.) This calls back to "Trusted" from Silverman and, given all the other veiled references to real or imagined infidelity on Folds' part on this album, may have some connection. Perhaps that's reading too much into it, but you could argue that I read too much into a lot of the songs, though I suspect that in most cases there's at least a grain of truth to those suspicions. Musically, this song could easily have come from pretty much any other album Folds has ever recorded, which is more of a compliment than it might sound.
When I first listened to Way to Normal, I was mostly underwhelmed, to put it charitably, although "Hiroshima" and "Cologne" were pretty much instant grabbers. Since listening to it a number of additional times - enough that I can sing along with virtually all of the songs already - I'd say I like it, although I can't say it's at the same level as Rockin' the Suburbs, Songs for Silverman, or even the combined Speed Graphic/Sunny 16/Super D. Even a lousy Ben Folds album is likely to be better than a lot of other stuff, though, and this isn't a lousy Ben Folds album in spite of the bitter or caustic edge on so many of the songs - even with as many as three tracks that are significantly missable (though that's probably being overly harsh on at least one of them), there's still enough good stuff on the album for it to be a good album, and there are at least two tracks that I'd rank among his best. Way to Normal may not have been worth a wait of almost three and a half years, but it'll do until the next one comes along.
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