Recording of October 2008: Way to Normal

BEN FOLDS: Way to Normal
Epic 886970984928 (CD). 2008. Dennis Herring, prod., Joe Costa, eng. AAD? TT: 40:32
Performance ****½
Sonics ***

People used to love Ben Folds for being a snot-nosed kid, for his bashing of people and places, and for turning his corrosive pen and piano on the complacent, the witless, and, of course, women.

Now on his fourth marriage, with kids growing up, the 42-year-old singer-songwriter is being pilloried for turning soft; for being too mature, too sincere. Since Songs for Silverman (2005), fans of Folds' smart-aleck side have brayed that he's no longer the rebel who wants to "rock the suburbs," to paraphrase the title of his first solo album—released, much to his chagrin, on September 11, 2001.

So the guy has grown up a little. And yeah, his music has grown more tuneful and accessible with time. So what if it's a little too comfy and sticky-sweet in places? As a dear friend always said, it happens in the best of families. And truthfully, the snarky brightest-kid-in-the-class thing had grown a little stale. Folds himself acknowledges some of his fans' displeasure in the opening track, "Hiroshima," where he recounts falling off the stage at a show in Japan: "They're watching me, watching me fall."

Fear not, snark addicts, the North Carolina whiz kid has not completely reformed, nor has time pruned any of the profanity from Folds' vocabulary. The F word remains a favorite verb, noun, and adjective. And the zeal with which he delivers lines like "Now we know who's fucking the guru" (from "Frown Song") tells you he's still a salty dog with a vulgar bark.

And can someone tell me how writing a tune like "Bitch Went Nuts" sends a signal that you're a doddering sack of middle-aged complacency? If I had to guess, I'd say the target of this frenetically paced salute to domestic Armageddon—the girl who "photo-shopped my face / Onto every boy who'd done her wrong"—is Folds' latest ex, who dragged him through two years of divorce hell.

The touchstones for Folds' music remain the same as they have always been. Joe Jackson is the most obvious precursor. The chorus of "Effington" is such a ringer for Jackson that it could be part of an outtake from one of his albums. At times, Folds' yearning vocals and upbeat, pounding piano style could easily be mistaken for that of the English pianist/vocal stylist and, now, vocal opponent of smoking bans ("Everything gives you cancer," Jackson once sang in disgust).

Beyond that, the pop smarts of Elton John are ever-present. In the opener, "Hiroshima," which chronicles that tumble from a Japanese stage (okay, maybe he is getting a little older), the simulated crowd noise of "Bennie and the Jets" can be heard. In track 2, "Dr. Yang," the sheer joy of keyboard pounding practically invented by Billy Joel (via Jerry Lee Lewis) makes an appearance.

The third of what is as strong a trio of tunes as you may ever hear opening a record is "The Frown Song," in which a Folds-only strength shows its hand. Skewering fashionable urban intolerance and self-indulgence he's written:

Hard to remember how we managed before
We could afford regular nervous breakdowns
Or before the Anthropologie store
Was erected on Indian burial ground.

A new tang on this album comes from the Twin Towers—more like the towers and the shopping mall—of John and Paul and Jeff Lynne. While the Beatles are an unconscious influence for nearly every rock musician who has taste and knows anything about what's come before, and appear here in the vocal blast that opens the sly "Effington," the ELO vibe is becoming a new and somewhat disturbingly ubiquitous force in pop music. In Way to Normal's absolutely epic pop tune "You Don't Know Me," it appears in the cheeky, low string orchestrations. Rising-star singer-songwriter Regina Spektor is spectacularly ideal as Folds' duet partner in this song—which, if there is any justice in the universe, should become a massive hit single. Jared Reynolds (bass) and Sam Smith (drums) complete the backup band. Again, the buzz that Folds has obviously gotten from his divorce is the dynamo behind this song of dark wonderment that longtime lovers can be strangers.

But elsewhere on Way to Normal, all is not fun and games and sticking it to an ex. The truly gorgeous ballad "Before Cologne," with its sad chorus of "Four three two one I'm letting you go," hints that there's some hurt under all the humorous vengeance.

The sound, unfortunately but not surprisingly, is that of a typically overcompressed modern rock record compensated for by a wide palette of sounds.

At least as strong an effort as his 1995 self-titled group debut or 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs, Way to Normal shows that a little artistic ripening ain't such a bad thing, and that maturity [gulp!] needn't be a dirty word.—Robert Baird