Ben Folds, Songs For Silverman, Epic, 2005
Ben Folds first came to attention ten years ago, as leader of the incongruously named Ben Folds Five, a trio. With angst-ridden grunge rockers all the rage, he brought the piano back into the spotlight, performing pop songs sans guitar to the very same audience that was listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Sophisticated and powerful, the sound was fresh and without precedent, something akin to Elton John playing punk. Much of the material was performed with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but when he got serious, the results were memorable.
Their sophomore release, 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen – an aptly titled pun on the grunge mindset and play on Randy Travis’ Forever and Ever Amen – was a commercial breakthrough that included the hit ‘Brick.’ A somber ballad dealing with a teenage couple’s decision to get an abortion, it was based on real events. Folds has commented “It was a very sad thing, but I didn’t really want to write the song from any kind of political standpoint or make a statement. I just wanted to reflect on what it feels like.”
The album included string arrangements by John Mark Painter of the critically acclaimed christian music duo Fleming & John. Folds drummed on both of the duo’s albums, and co-wrote their near hit, ‘Ugly Girl.’ Painter has worked with Folds in a number of capacities. He appears on Silverman playing French horn and upright bass, and co-produces two songs.
1998’s Fear Of Pop-Volume 1 was a veritable one man show, featuring Folds writing, singing and playing nearly all the instruments. An eclectic one-off, the album includes guitar-based rockers, novelties, and his first collaboration with William Shatner – yes, that William Shatner – whose most recent album – Has Been – was produced by Folds.
He returned to the trio for one more album, 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. The group broke up the following year, and Folds’ official solo debut, Rockin’ the Suburbs – which saw the humor toned down a few notches – was released soon after. Following a live solo album he released three Eps, all doing far better than expected – one even took the top position on Billboard’s download chart, booting off Beyonce Knowles’ ubiquitous ‘Crazy In Love’).
Songs For Silverman contains eleven songs, for the most part just piano and rhythm section, with occasional guests. The straightforward, stripped-down performances go right to the heart of the songs, making for a sound reminiscent of early Elton John.
The flippant, angry young man is now a father, and songs about mortality, relationships and parenting have replaced the novelty bits numbers.
Opening track ‘Bastard’ acknowledges that we all grow up; “I wanted to say something about the jadedness of kids who think that it’s all been done and they’ve seen everything by the time they’re 18. You’re not supposed to be like that when you’re a kid. You have to let yourself be idealistic for at least a couple of minutes.. In this song, the old bastard is actually a teenager.” It’s full on arrested development; “You get smaller as the world gets big…”The Whiz Man” will never fit you like “The Whiz Kid” did.’
’Gracie’ is a touching love song dedicated to his daughter, He has five year old twins – son Louie had a song on the previous album – “Having kids is part of life, and every day makes you different, and music’s different every day. Had I not had kids I don’t know what maybe my music would be different, I’m not sure.”
‘Jesusland’ is a telling indictment of the darker side of the religious right. On the accompanying DVD Folds describes the song as “a walk across where we live – America, and just what it looks like from the point of view of someone who doesn’t have any money and is just walking.” The song has Jesus walking across the country, ignored by those that make money off of his name. “It was really easy to write. The only hard thing about writing it is having to cut out five verses. I was trying to squeeze it in. When you call a song ‘Jesusland’ I don’t want it to be too preachy, and I just decided to make it an honest, not a sarcastic song, just an honest walk across what is kind of becoming Jesusland.” ‘Beautiful McMansions on a hill/That overlook a highway/With riverboat casinos and you still/Have yet to see a soul/Jesusland’ ‘Town to town/Broadcast to each house/They drop your name/But no one knows your face/Billboards quoting things you never said/You hang your head and pray/for Jesusland’
Blessed with a voice reminiscent of Art Garfunkel, unique piano stylings, and sharp, smart pop sensibilities, Ben Folds is making the best music of his career.
© John Cody 2005