Smile Politely

How We Helped Write Rock History: Way to Normal by Ben Folds

Cristy: In spring 2007, we saw Ben Folds at ISU’s Braden Auditorium. Midway through, he announced a new song that he’d written on the way to Normal from St. Louis—a tribute to a little town he’d passed on the interstate called “Effington.” He jokingly sang about Effington’s residents “effing” in their yards and in their cars. Although he got the name wrong (it’s actually “Effingham”) the crowd responded with raucous glee. Since it seemed crudely composed and sung as if Folds were making it up as he went along, I figured “Effington” was a one-off throwaway—a gift to his downstate Illinois fans.

Fast-forward to fall 2008. Browsing through Luna Records in Indianapolis, William and I discovered that Ben Folds’s new album is called Way to Normal. As I scanned the track list, my eyes stopped at “Effington” and practically bugged out of their sockets. “Hey! I think Ben Folds’s CD refers to Normal, Illinois!” I exclaimed to William.

William: I squinted at the title, and sure enough it was “to” and not “too.”

C: We were there when it began! As spectators at the genesis of that song, present at the concert referred to in the title of the album, we were witnesses to a moment in rock history!

W: Well, it wasn’t Woodstock, but I still felt part of something kind of important.

C: So we bought it. I’m a huge Ben Folds (and Ben Folds Five) fan, but he’s one of those artists I can only listen to when I’m in a certain mood. Folds’s songs can be sadly poignant (“Landed,” “Eddie Walker, This is Your Life,” “Evaporated”), and sometimes I feel too raw to go through Folds’s meatgrinder of lonely stories about ordinary people who realize that life doesn’t go as planned.

Way to Normal is different. A more upbeat effort than his last album (the introspective Songs for Silverman), Way to Normal sounds looser, rocks harder, and moves faster. I didn’t like it the first time I heard it. The first song (“Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)”) was recorded live, which immediately made me think the album was an uneven throwaway of B-sides and live tracks. While some songs sounded polished, others were distorted. When the CD ended, I was less than fulfilled. Then we played it again. This time Folds’s hooks sank right into my skin. By the fifth time through, I was singing along.

Many tracks on Way to Normal are rowdy and capture the lower-fi Ben Folds Five sound (“Errant Dog”); others demonstrate his more sensitive songwriter side (“Cologne”). As a whole, Way to Normal boasts the usual Ben Folds anger and sarcasm, but he seems to be having a really, really good time. His dark humor permeates the disc, such as the solemn spoken preface to “Bitch Went Nuts.” (Speaking of “bitch,” Ben Folds is always singing about bitches. Could the fact that he’s been married and divorced three times have anything to do with it?)

W: Ben Folds must be a master of the art of the break-up song, for better and for worse, and he shows his range here from the puerile “Bitch Went Nuts” to the more gracious, wrenching “Cologne.” Unlike Cristy, I identify with the immature Ben Folds, the bratty punk pianist of his debut Ben Folds Five. This CD is a return to the casual, childish Folds. With a charming disregard for commercial potential and classical posterity, he deploys cussing in most of the songs, even in the choruses. There are at least two moments where you can hear him or someone in the band laughing mid-song.

C: Folds also ventures beyond the piano, which is a cool departure. Funky, fuzzy sounds like mellotron and Moog abound, especially in “Free Coffee,” which also concludes with a quirky organ solo reminiscent of Steely Dan’s “Your Gold Teeth.” He even includes a duet: “You Don’t Know Me” with Regina Spektor. (Her lispy soprano normally annoys me, but sounds great here.)

W: True that, while the emotional range of these songs is somewhat compressed, there is a diversity of arrangements. “Free Coffee” stands out with timbres like I’ve not heard before. With its eerie distorted drumming and trebly sequencer-like keyboard sounds, it makes becoming a rich rock star sound like getting abducted by aliens—and maybe it is. The a capella intro to “Effington” is an odd touch, perhaps a jab at the Midwestern collegiate mindset. The synthesizer on “The Frown Song” is old school, sounding more like The Day the Earth Stood Still than the Eurythmics. There is a string quartet used to subtle, excellent effect in a few places. But the familiar piano bouncing through the album is never silent for long.

Although I have not been an avid student of Ben Folds’s solo career, I endorse this disc, especially for parties, dog owners, recent divorcees, or people living in downstate Illinois.

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