Thirty years ago, Elton John and Billy Joel were the kings of piano-based songwriting. Since then, Ben Folds has taken the throne, proving to be perhaps the greatest American songwriter of his generation. Yet, his third solo effort, Way To Normal, contains only glimpses of the talent that previously filled up albums.
Joining Folds on this release is Jared Reynolds on bass and Dennis Herring on drums.
“Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)” is an anthem about how Folds fell in Japan and the audience laughed at him. It’s a pretty straightforward lyric and drive, and it’s very catchy. By contrast, “Dr. Yang” is just a stupid, simple song sung by a lounge pianist. It’s very forgettable. “The Frown Song” has a bit of a hip-hop feel in the verses because of the electronic accompaniment. It’s a decent track, and it has a Beatle-esque bridge.
“You Don’t Know Me” is one track inspired by Folds’ recent divorce. It’s a bit clunky and jolting, and the vocals don’t mesh as well as a duet should. The saving grace is Folds’ overdubbed harmonies near the end. Folds’ first truly melancholy song comes with “Cologne” (and its prelude, “Before Cologne”). Like many of his songs, it’s about love and sadness. This situation has produced some of his best work, so it’s a welcome return.
“Errant Dog” is full of profanity without satire, and has unremarkable music and vocals and a cheesy chorus. “Free Coffee” has interesting production with its background static, but it’s also a bit distracting. It ends with an overdubbed, humorous monologue about why relationships fail that leads the album’s best track, “Bitch Went Nuts.” This track is vintage Folds: a great melody with exciting piano playing and funny, offensive lyrics. It shows that there is still hope that he can reach the fantastic heights of his last release.
The final tracks, “Effington” and “Kylie From Connecticut,” are the other two truly great tracks on Way To Normal. With the former, Folds writes bold, satirical lyrics over a catchy, energetic and upbeat melody. “Kylie From Connecticut” follows his trend of nostalgic, observational pieces that tell a story. This is also one of his strengths and it’s a terrific track to end with. The middle is an unusual attempt at building tension with orchestration, and expertly leads back into the verse.
To be blunt and honest, Way To Normal is, overall, the worst Ben Folds album. But that is really only a testament to how fantastic his previous LPs were. He shows that he is still capable of being the best American songwriter in 15 years, but also that he’s perhaps trying less, resorting to half-hearted attempts and pale imitations of his “Five” days. At the end of the day, fans will still find a lot to like here, but just too much not to like as well.