Ben Folds and Nick Hornby
This is an album of great highlights and utter crap, an oddly self-conscious outing by two artists who in some ways were made for each other and who in some ways bring out the worst in each other.
Ben Folds, in case you don’t know, wrote the music and performs the songs, while novelist Nick Hornby provides the lyrics.
Basically, I don’t like what they’ve come up with. Ben Folds’ music, steeped in Beatles’ influences by way of the Electric Light Orchestra, is, on most tracks, over-produced and cloying. It is full of key changes and time signature changes and instrumentation and vocal overlays that, to my ear, interfere with some potentially nice melodies. Yes, yes, I know that’s just the way he is, but an album full of it drives me a bit nuts.
There are a bunch of musicians around at the moment who do this sort of thing, who can’t leave a good tune alone and feel the need to insert funny vocalisations, odd noises, keyboard fiddlings, strings and harps and other bells and whistles (sometimes, literally, bells and whistles). I’m looking at you Regina Spektor and you Tori Amos and probably even you Kate Bush, even though you aren’t really around at the moment but I suspect that you — I can sing like a big girl/I can sing like little girl too — are probably the source of this sort of thing.
Anyway, I wish they’d stop. I wish Ben Folds would stop. It’s all a bit self-consciously clever.
The best tracks on this album are undoubtedly ‘Picture Window’ and ‘Practical Amanda’ and guess what? They are the tracks with the least embellishment, the songs where the beautiful melody is allowed to shine through almost unadorned and where Folds’ voice is at its absolute best.
‘Picture Window’ in particular is a classic song, one for the ages, and probably the best lyric on the album too.
Which brings me to the lyrics.
As you would expect, Nick Hornby has a way with words. He’s also funny and thoughtful and intelligent but somehow it doesn’t quite work. It’s all a bit self-consciously clever.
Take the opening track, ‘A Working Day’. Nick obviously wanted to get something off his chest:
Some guy on the net thinks I suck
And he should know
He’s got his own blog
Cringe factor worthy of The Australian. I don’t know, maybe we should all be reassured that a writer as successful as Hornby is still filled with enough self-doubt to feel the need to write a song like this. Or maybe we should tell him to grow up and laugh off insults from people who will never come anywhere near matching his achievements.
Build a bridge, Nick, and get over it.
Just as I wish Folds would tone down his songs a little, kill some of the effects and embellishments, I wish Hornby had a bit more confidence in his ability to express emotion. The songs are littered with expletives and colloquialisms and I guess you can see their use in two ways. The positive reading is that they inject a bit of realism and humour into the songs and serve to undercut what could become saccharine and sentimental.
The other way to read it — and the way that I think is closer to the mark — is that Hornby is just that bit too uncomfortable to express genuine emotion straight and so feels the need to distance himself from something that otherwise might be too raw.
I guess it could be a bit of both.
At the end of the day the album sounds like the soundtrack to a Broadway musical, not a bad thing necessarily, but it tells you something about the net effect. Folds writes big, clever tunes that dance and play all over the place in precisely the way the music for a Broadway show does, while Hornby has provided a set of storytelling lyrics that are conversational enough to have been translated from dialogue: you could easily imagine any of these tracks inserted into the pregnant pause musicals provide so that the characters can burst into song.
Maybe they should adapt High Fidelity for the stage?
Anyway, I had big problems with the album, despite the fact that there is some great stuff in there. If they ever release an unplugged version, I’d certainly give it a listen.