Capsule Review: Way to Normal by Ben Folds

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October 7, 2008

2:30 AM

Piano-rocker Ben Folds throws the romantic catastrophe under the microscope in his third solo release “Way to Normal.” From his claim that couples are anything but honest with one another to the tender examination of the last moments of a relationship, the album pain-stakingly categorizes the fall of intimacy. Sadly, listeners should only expect to be satiated, as opposed to overjoyed.

The album’s highlight is, of course, the Regina Spektor collaboration “You Don’t Know Me.” As with many Folds songs, the catchy tune masks a more complex concern. The he said-she said style ponders what exactly keeps people together, while the two singer/songwriters play a lyrical tug-of-war with both each other and the audience.

The album’s biggest blunder is the terribly-titled “The Bitch Went Nuts.” Here Folds resorts to an old formula of coupling classic piano with outrageous obscenity. This recipe, which served him faithfully in his remix of Dr. Dre’s 1992 hit (“Bitches Ain’t Shit”) here seems gratuitous. The pseudo-political overtones make this track one to be skipped rather than savored.

Folds’ ballads, while safe, are legitimately affecting. Both “Cologne” and “Kylie Calling from Connecticut” come across as beautiful for their sincerity. The former illustrates a relationship in those last, corrosive moments, delicately describing the final conversations with a departing lover. “I will let go if you will let go,” he serenades a soon-to-be ex.

After delving into the collapse of a relationship, Folds frantically changes track to tell the story of a runaway pet. “Errant Dog” attempts to return to the comic origins of his work with the Five while still serving as a melancholy metaphor for lost love. “He’s my everything, he means the world to me,” Folds croons.

The biggest problem with the album is not what’s present, but what’s missing. The light-hearted humor of previous endeavors is noticeably absent. Though Folds tries to inject his songs with wit, the result seems strained. The obvious example is the Elton John reference —“Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head)”— in which the joke is more forced than funny.

Though “Way to Normal” is not without missteps, Folds’ latest endeavor nevertheless shows that this piano man can still pound the ivories. In short, Ben recorded another album.

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