Lonely Avenue by Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
For his latest album, Ben Folds collaborates with Nick Hornby, author of High Fidelity, About a Boy and Fever Pitch, who provides all of its lyrics. It seems only fitting that Hornby, an English novelist who grew up in the 1970’s and is obsessed with its music, should collaborate with Ben Folds, a American singer-songwriter who rose to prominence in the mid-1990’s and is, despite the fact that he came of age in the 1980’s, obsessed with the music of the 1970’s. Nostalgia is an overarching theme in the work of both artists: in the case of the former, nostalgia as filtered through his memories of the pop music of his adolescence, for the latter, nostalgia filtered directly through that music: for years Folds’ output has been compared to Todd Rundgren, Billy Joel and Elton John. So will this album prove a seamless melding of the complementary aesthetics of each artist, an ode to nostalgia as filtered through nostalgic sounds, or a botched experiment that seemingly only works on paper?
On the album’s brisk, 111-second opening track, "A Working Day", Hornby’s protagonist sarcastically boasts of his "ass-kicking" record sales and sarcastically quips: "Some guy on the net thinks I suck / and he should know / he’s got his own blog," invoking images of Hornby sitting at a writing desk, teetering on the precipice of middle age, scoffing snarkily at those newfangled internet upstarts, confident in the belief that their electronic blatherings will never influence record sales. Apart from the embarassingly antediluvian sentiment, it’s a strong, efficacious opener, daring and adventurous in its arrangement and instrumentation — that is, by the utilitarian standards of Folds — invoking the trademarked lame white-boy funk of some of his strongest past work.
Subsequent tracks reveal that Hornby doesn’t have any particular knack for rhyming–but it’s arguable that Bernie Taupin didn’t either. His strong suit as a lyricist is his ability to evoke strong images in a pithy, laconic fashion and, at times, his lyrics are miles above the standard of those of the average pop/rock songwriter. The real problem is Folds, who rarely departs from his signature brand of gentle, cloying, syrupy schmaltz: after the snoozy, generic Ben Folds Five-retread of "Picture Window" and the almost-catchy "Levi Johnston’s Blues" — whose lyrics seem to be largely adapted from the titular character’s MySpace profile — "Doc Pomus", a song about another famous rock-lyricist, finds Folds introducing a Vince Guaraldi-style riff to his signature sentimental piano pop.
“Your Dogs” is the first truly exciting track on the album, featuring a fuzz bass and tasteful synth leads over an inspired vocal performance by Folds, but it leads right into “Practical Amanda”, another boring overly sentimental song, this time some sort of sexist love ballad about Hornby’s wife, who stays at home sorting out all of the boring domestic stuff which “she’s good at,” while her famous husband gallivants about the globe, and “Claire’s Ninth”, which is quite similar. Again, there’s nothing bad I can say about the music because Folds has mastered this form: it’s the same benign Hallmark Greeting Card music with someone else’s Greeting Card poetry.