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Musical Marmite ahoy. Ben Folds is either a pop genius whose ironic, witty, peaens to modern hypocrisy and self-deprecation mixed with the odd lovelorn ballad are the most underrated thing on the planet. Or he's a uber-nerd who 's determined to show that his resentment at all those piano lessons as a child could be channelled into slightly snide, cleverly-constructed songs full of revenge. All this is a way of saying that Way To Normal will dispel neither view; whichever you subscribe to.
Folds has had a busy year, even reforming the Five for a gig and working on Amanda Palmer's album, and Way To Normal is obviously the result of a lot of hard work. Yet for all the Beatle-eque harmonising and West Coast richness there's an uncomfortable edge. While the signature 88s are firing on all cylinders the relentless plink-plonk can get tiring. Especially by the cod clasicism of Effington, wherein our boy pokes 'fun' at small town life. One senses that perhaps a fuller band sound would make the tales of human failure more palatable.
Still, for fans of the Folds geek-with-a-snappy-comeback formula will be well-pleased by Way To Normal. It shows him to be in a creative maelstrom, albeit one that may need to move its focus elsewhere than the obvious failings of the society he chooses to live in. Like XTC, Folds has a fully-functioning grasp of classic late 60s pop dynamics as well as pop history in general (yes, we get the reference to Elton John in the autobiographical opening track, Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)).
When he does the ballad thing he's on perfectly safe ground. Both Cologne and Kylie Calling From Conneticut are beautiful and genuinely affecting. But they highlight the album's key weakness. While most of this material is undeniably smart it's not overly lovable. Perhaps now that Ben's worked out his obvious frustrations at modern life he can start making more constructive statements. The appallingly-titled The Bitch Went Nuts informs us that "she called me C***". Well maybe you deserved it Ben, if this is your emotional response to rejection. Or maybe it's all meant to be ironic? Whatever; it's not that funny.
This is undeniably intelligent adult pop with a surprisingly angry heart. --Dennis O'Dell
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