by Ben Folds & Nick Hornby
Nonesuch Records, 2010
Review by Paul Fenton
In a departure from convention, I’ve decided to review an album. Not wishing to set a precedent on the site, I feel I should point out: this is no ordinary album. A collaboration between Ben Folds (music) and Nick Hornby (lyrics), Lonely Avenue plays like a short story collection.
After a period of mutual appreciation, Folds managed to convince Hornby to write some song lyrics for him. Hornby acquiesced and emailed the songs to Folds, who put them to music. The project, which was tagged “Foldsby” by fans of the musician, was recently released as a finished album, and after the first listen I felt compelled – driven, even – to review it.
If I could put it out of my mind that Folds hadn’t written the lyrics, I could easily imagine he had; his song-writing style has always been one of story-telling rather than simply expressing some facile emotion over and over and over again until you break the buttons on the stereo in your rush to shut the crap off. (An aside: What comes first in the creation of a song, music or lyrics? I tend to think it’s the former rather than the latter, the way they often seem so inappropriately kludged in to fit the rhythm.) Hornby’s lyrics come from an unmistakably literary angle, short tales about people who might be real, or invented, or a combination of the two, and it was left up to Folds to decide what kind of a song it was going to be.
Take the first track off the album, “Working Day”, kind of like a blues song for writers who are insecure and cynical and sarcastic and generally damaged (read as: all writers). It could be applied to most artists, I just assume it’s about a writer because writers love writing about writers. It’s a first-person affirmation/resignation statement, an artist struggling with the uninformed criticism of Internet commentators.
The chorus, if it has one, goes thusly:
Some guy on the ‘net
Thinks I suck
And he should know:
He’s got his own blog.
For me, this is one of the most addictive tracks on the album. It’s short, sharp, catchy, like “You Don’t Know Me” was on “Way to Normal”, and doesn’t even give you half a chance to get tired of it. It goes: verse, verse, chorus, verse, finish. Or maybe it’s: verse, verse, chorus 1, chorus 2. I don’t know. This is where I expose my gross lack of music knowledge, but I don’t care. I just wish the chorus repeated at least once so I didn’t have to keep skipping backwards on my iPod.
Track two is “Picture Window”, kind of a sad-yet-hopeful ballad (see earlier admission of poor musical knowledge) which tells the story of a mother taking her child to hospital on New Year’s Eve. The picture window looks out over Parliament Hill in London and gives a view of the midnight celebrations. Piano starts things off, and as with many other tracks on this album, layers of strings begin to flow over the harmony, and you soon find yourself beginning to appreciate the remarkable depth in the music. Folds really pulled out all the strings (mixed cliché, a new low!) on this album, employing some serious string kung fu masters.
After the relative gravity of “Picture Window,” we have the comedic “Levi Johnston’s Blues”. I had no idea who Levi Johnston was before listening to this track and subsequently reading explanations. Americans have probably all heard about him by now. He was the boyfriend of Sara Palin’s daughter during the 2008 US presidential election, and Sara Palin announced to the media her daughter’s pregnancy and engagement to Johnston. The whole thing apparently smacked of shotgun wedding. The song is both incredibly catchy and hilarious, telling the story, tongue-in-cheek, from Johnston’s perspective, with Palin’s staff informing Johnston of his new commitment to Bristol Palin. The chorus:
I’m a f*cking redneck
I live to hang out with the boys
Play some hockey
Do some fishing
And kill some moose.
I like to shoot the shit
Do some chilling I guess.
You f*ck with me and I’ll kick your ass.
Next up is Doc Pomus, a wheelchair-bound songwriter of apparently prolific status, author of as many hits as misses, the song suggests. I looked him up, and he either wrote, or co-wrote, among others, “Suspicion” and “Viva Las Vegas”. He also wrote the lyrics for “Lonely Avenue”, from which the album takes its name. It’s like musical history in a pop song.
Like a good short story collection, each track contains a measure of difference to be a standalone tale, and there is a consistency of style and emotion running through all of them, something approaching intimacy. The combination of subtlety and directness in the lyrics of some of the songs is not something I’ve heard before in music, carrying an unmistakeable literary tone which makes them so appealing to listen to over and over again. Take “Password”, for example, a track I’d initially skipped over because it sounded just a touch too cheesy, too retro. Then when I began to pay closer attention to the lyrics, and the story they were telling, I realised it was one of the more clever songs on the album. What Hornby has done with the song is use the progression of passwords used by the main character to chart a relationship, starting with her favourite meals and her mother’s maiden name, and ending with words of rejection and disappointment as he learns of her betrayal (I’m assuming the MC is male, but he could easily be a she).
I feel like I’m gushing here. Am I gushing? I’m just so intrigued by what these two artists have created, and the process they must have gone through. Hornby would have had some semblance of tune in his head when he wrote the lyrics, surely, or at least an idea of what kind of song it should be. Or perhaps he just approached it as poetry. Folds then had to unearth the songs within the lyrics, matching both the rhythms and the stories. Again, how many songs are created this way? I doubt many as well as these.
I only regret that while I have just about every song Ben Folds has produced, both solo and when in Ben Folds Five, I’ve yet to read one of Hornby’s books. Sure, I’ve seen some of the movies, but that often kills my desire to read the books. I will read some now, though. It’s hard not to like a writer you can tap your foot to.