Many of today’s most successful pop stars write very little of their own music or lyrics, and they don’t want you to know it. This has never been the case for Ben Folds, who writes the vast majority of his own work. But for his latest album, Lonely Avenue, Folds chose to embrace outside input. Instead of looking to the kind of studio musicians who penned Miley’s latest hit, though, Folds enlisted the help of Nick Hornby, the renowned English author behind High Fidelity and Fever Pitch. The blending of Hornby’s lyrics and Folds’s music creates a unique, interesting album, but ultimately not a great one.
Fans will recognize Ben Folds’ signature sound, which he calls “punk rock for pussies,” as the instrumental composition on this record is very similar to that of his other albums. The percussion lays a sturdy foundation for his experimentation with piano chord-play and country-tinged acoustic guitars. The instrumentation is noteworthy for its diversity, with a baroque string section appearing as often as Moog synth pads. And you have to appreciate Folds’s musicianship—he individually lays down all of the instrumental tracks on his records.
The lyrics themselves are more interesting than the music, with Hornby tackling well-trodden topics like pop culture and young love. But Hornby’s penchant for prose has its downsides. His words are often too literal, lacking the poetic touch of master lyricists and leaving too few details open to the listener’s interpretation. They also contribute to Lonely Avenue’s biggest problem: Folds’s voice. At times, it is not strong enough to compete with his elaborate melodies and handle Hornby’s densely packed lyrics. As Folds strains in “Picture Window,” his vibrato voice sounds more like a Broadway performer’s than the Elton John-style piano rocker he usually resembles.
Hornby’s best contribution to the album is “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” a tribute to the young Alaskan jock responsible for knocking up Sarah Palin’s daughter on the eve of the 2008 Presidential Election. In the chorus, the song mocks Palin’s over-the-top right wing politics: “I’m a fucking redneck / I live to hang out with the boys / Play some hockey / Do some fishing / And kill some moose.”
Although the originality of the collaboration is respectable, Lonely Avenue ultimately fails to capitalize on its potential. Folds’ music and Hornby’s lyrics, although solid on their own, never gel and so the resulting album sounds disjointed. Though it is an interesting experiment worthy of a listen or two, the finished product proves that Folds and Hornby should stick to doing what they do best, separately.
Voice’s Choices: “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” “From Above,” “Things You Think”