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Ben Folds returns to his irreverent roots with Normal

Adam Spektor

Issue date: 10/10/08 Section: Focus
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Something happened to Ben Folds between 2005's Songs For Silverman and this year's Way to Normal. It may have been his third divorce - from ex-wife Frally Hynes - and subsequent marriage to Fleur Folds, but whatever it was, it warped him. After two albums and three EPs displaying a (relative) growth of maturity, Folds was on his way to becoming a serious recording artist, trading his irreverence and strategic cursing for sensitivity and subtlety. And with Way to Normal, he threw most of that maturity directly out the window.
The signs leading up to the album's release were very telling, leaving little surprises in the final result. Months before Normal hit the shelves, Folds anonymously leaked several fake versions of songs on the album that he and his band tossed off on an extra night of recording.
He even had the absurdist comedy duo of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim direct the music video to the album's first single, "You Don't Know Me." This was much more like the Ben Folds who recorded those "ironic" covers of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit" and the Darkness' "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" than the Ben Folds who tugged heartstrings everywhere with "The Luckiest" and "Landed."
That re-established vibe of irreverence is exactly what Folds is going for with Way to Normal, and it's that constructed image of the great pop iconoclast that is the album's greatest flaw (perhaps his best imitation of himself?). Folds is more bitter here than he has ever been, and he directs his bitterness at some obvious targets. Insane ex-girlfriends, New-Age doctors, and the placated public are easy for anyone to take potshots at, never mind an established lyricist like Ben Folds. Additionally, a snide lyric like "Rock on with your fashionable frown" in "The Frown Song" is simply hypocritical in the context of the album. Lyrically, Way to Normal is Folds' most shallow outing yet.
Luckily, Folds is still the master tunesmith he has always been, and although his style has regressed, it's regressed back to the styles of his classic work in Ben Folds Five.
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