It’s hard not to include a pun on the title of Ben Folds’ third solo album because it’s just so…Normal. Following a successful beginning as a solo artist with 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs, he released a bunch of EP’s and 2005’s Songs For Silverman, a more somber collection of songs. Some fans were disappointed with his abandonment of the “punk rock for sissies” sound (Folds’ own admonition of his musical style) that helped bring him and Ben Folds Five (his previous group, for those under a rock) to fame. But Folds just wanted a new direction.
So now we have Way To Normal being hailed as a return to his roots as a loud, witty piano driven rocker. But it begs to be asked: What is normal for Ben Folds? The album restores the crunchy piano and the fuzz bass prominent in all of Ben Folds Five’s recordings (and in Rockin’ The Suburbs), but it is lacking the soul that made those albums so memorable. If anything, Folds seems to be suffering from what I call “front man syndrome.” The definition of FMS is when a former lead singer/songwriter of a loved band) that has embarked on a subsequent solo career that just doesn’t stand up to the work of the said band. Example: John Fogerty. If you ask any Ben Folds fan what album is his best, there is a good chance they will name one of the Ben Folds Five albums. While Rockin’ The Suburbs maintained Folds’ status following the demise of BFF, it just wasn’t the same.
What did make Rockin’ The Suburbs exciting was the inclusion of guitars, a severe no-no during BFF and other instruments that were off limits for the band. He also played just about every one of them! It showed a new Folds willing to experiment and expand beyond his piano. But then all of a sudden he recruited new bass player, Jared Reynolds and drummer Lindsay Jamieson (now Dennis Herring). He still used guitars, but it was mostly back to the Ben Folds Five formula. It wasn’t a terrible album, it was good, but it seemed odd that he went back without the two guys (Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee) who were an integral part of the sound.
And with Way To Normal he’s even closer to the BFF sound, as I said before, without any of what made that band so memorable. If anything Way To Normal only affirms how integral Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee were to BFF. The new guys just can’t cut it. Reynolds fuzz bass just sounds like a cheap rip off. And the harmonizing is dull at best. Unfortunately, the worst of them is Folds. He just lacks the knack for melody he used to have, his wit just isn’t as snappy and his jokes fall flat or appear forced. His genius shines through a bit on album closer “Kylie in Connecticut,” but barely. To be honest, it’s tragic and this is coming from a huge Ben Folds fan. I think he still has it in him, but he doesn’t seem to have the same honesty he had with BFF. I’m still hopeful he has some tricks up his sleeve, but I’m no longer holding my breath.