Lonely Avenue is a collaboration between Ben Folds and music-obsessed novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, 31 Songs). Hornby provided the lyrics for 11 songs, which Folds then set to music and recorded in his Nashville studio. Joining Folds in the studio at various points were his own band, a string section, and legendary arranger Paul Buckmaster.
Lonely Avenue offers equal measures of humour and pathos in often deceptively cheerful songs. Folds gives voice to Hornby's endearingly mixed up, lovelorn characters, who come across as sympathetic even at their most hapless. An aging pop singer has to endlessly and agonizingly reprise his one hit, a paean to a woman he left years ago, to the fans who still attend his shows ("Belinda"). A mother deliberately avoids a stunning view of New Years Eve fireworks as she ministers to her seriously ill child in a London hospital ("Picture Window"). Hornby reconstructs the world of crippled, Brill Building-era songwriter Doc Pomus circa 1962 ("Doc Pomus"), and imagines, with unexpected tenderness, the moment when Alaskan teenager Levi Johnston discovered he'd impregnated the newly announced vice-presidential candidate's daughter, Bristol Palin ("Levi Johnston's Blues").
In his 2002 book 31 Songs, a semi-autobiography testified through the prism his record collection, Nick Hornby remarked that he writes books because he can’t write songs. Lonely Avenue tests this characteristic self-deprecation, Hornby providing lyrics for music by Ben Folds (a Folds tune, Smoke, was among Hornby’s 31).
Hornby is running at a high bar – since emerging in the mid-90s, Folds has been a consistently enthralling songwriter. Consciously or not, it’s perhaps for this reason that Hornby – no stranger, as a novelist, to narrating from third-person viewpoints – writes uncannily like Folds. Had Hornby’s participation not been advertised, it’s unlikely anyone would have suspected the hand of a collaborator. The scenarios are Folds’ familiar palette of wry character sketches and sharply observed domestic dramas, and the vernacular is deliberately American English.
Lonely Avenue is not an unalloyed triumph. Obvious talking point Levi Johnston’s Blues, a semi-Springstonian lament from the perspective of the father of Sarah Palin’s grandchild, bristling against the shotgun in the back of his wedding tux – The River reset in Wasilla – rings hollow, and Folds somewhat overdoes the bombast. The Hold Steady-ish Your Dogs, all wo-ah choruses and fidgety electric keys, also overcooks itself.
The more restrained moments, however, are gorgeous. Belinda is a sumptuous ballad with a beautifully observed lyric, about a one-hit-wonder artist who cruelly ditched the woman he wrote his one hit about, but is stuck singing sentiments to which he no longer subscribes. The joyously rueful shuffle From Above is clearly intended as a companion to Tom Waits’ immortal ships-that-passed lament Martha, sympathising with the equally thwarted people with whom Waits’ protagonists actually spent their lives.
This is an affecting and intelligent record: neither Folds nor Hornby should be shy about suggesting a sequel.
Find more music at the BBC This link will take you off Amazon in a new window