Still the best of the Ben solo years
There are few modern singer/songwriters who can rival Ben Folds.
After all, his late 20s and early 30s signaled his rise as the bandleader of Ben Folds Five, an exceptional trio wherein his intermittent doses of sarcastic male scorn and astute woe juxtaposed the more introspective and explicit tales of womanhood provided by the equally talented, characteristic, and mounting Tori Amos. After they disbanded around the turn of the century, he carried on with more mature, ornate, and refined—but not necessarily superior—solo albums, solidifying himself as one of the most endearing and dependable songwriters and mainstream pianists of his era. Although it’s nearly impossible to pick a “best” Ben Folds album (since each of them contains some of his best material), the deeply personal and discerning Songs for Silverman is a clear candidate.
Songs for Silverman abandons much of Folds’ trademark tongue-in-cheek humor and provocative edge in favor of more grounded and tastefully earnest pieces. Of course, that’s not an inherently good or bad thing since even his most overtly frisky, profane, and downright contemptuously misogynistic odes, such as “The Bitch Went Nuts,” “Song for the Dumped,” “Army,” “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” and “Levi Johnston’s Blues,” are still full of cunning lyricism, robust melodies, and sophisticated arrangements. Yet, the wisdom, gravity, and approachability of Songs for Silverman makes it possibly his most settled and cohesive work.
That steadiness makes sense considering the subject matter tackled on the record. Among the weightier topics are his bond with his youngest biological child, Gracie, his deteriorating marriage to Frally Folds (maiden name Hynes), and the ironic yet crucial disconnects that’ve resulted from people misinterpreting and misrepresenting Christianity. There’s also a touching tribute to the late Elliot Smith (“Late”), with whom Folds had toured. He adds: “I wanted to write about the Elliott Smith that I saw on tour . . . who seemed shy and fragile one minute then playing super aggressive basketball the next, whose music got me through some hard times.” Obviously, such stimuli is profoundly personal and universal at once, so it’s no doubt cathartic for both Folds and his fans.
Whereas his first solo album post-Ben Folds Five, 2001’s Rockin’ the Suburbs, was played almost entirely by himself, Songs for Silverman sees him return to the band format, with bassist/vocalist Jared Reynolds and drummer/vocalist Lindsay Jamieson completing the ensemble. As for supporting musicians, they include violinist Ned Henry, cellist David Henry, multiinstrumentalist John Mark Painter, and guitarist Bucky Baxter. Also, Frally provides backing vocals, as does Al Yankovic (yes, that Al Yankovic, who also famously directed the music video for “Rockin’ the Suburbs”). Behind the scenes, the disc was produced by Folds and Painter, and its name—as well as the subsequent Songs for Goldfish compilation—is a tribute to Ben Goldman (a former A&R rep at Sony BMG who represented Folds). Folds explains: “I was always sending songs to him . . . for the album, so I wanted to name it after him. But somebody (from Sony) found out and flipped out, so I changed it a bit and turned it in.”
Between the U.S. and the UK, three singles were issued: “Landed,” “Late,” and “Jesusland.” The latter also received a music video featuring British sketch comedian Matt Lucas (Little Britain, Come Fly with Me) as a televangelist, and the song itself was presented in Bill Maher’s humorously scathing 2008 documentary, Religulous. Outside of the album proper, the vinyl edition came with “Bitches Ain’t Shit” (Folds’ surprisingly downtrodden and classy take on a hip-hop song by Dr. Dre) and the Japanese version came with “Side of the Road” (a spirited tale of contemplation and independence). There’s also a DVD edition that contains “Landed (Strings Version),” live performances, interviews, behind the scenes footage, and the forty-minute or so The Making of ‘Songs for Silverman’ documentary.
If not for 2008’s Way to Normal, the LP would still be Folds’ highest charting solo album, as it reached #13 on the Billboard 200 and stayed on the charts for almost a dozen weeks. Fittingly, it was also praised by most press outlets, including Drowned in Sound, Entertainment Weekly, Playlouder, and Mojo. Admittedly—and somewhat bafflingly—publications like The A.V. Club, Pitchfork, Alternative Press, and Uncut were less enthusiastic, often chastising him for being too bland, self-indulgent, and safe. Likened to his other solo work (before and after Songs for Silverman), the collection is less diverse and audacious, but honestly, that’s precisely what makes it a relatively significant and special anomaly.
There are some classic rockers in the mix, too, such as opener “Bastard.” Kicking off with fuzz bass lines, patient syncopation, bouncily dissonant piano chords, and affectionate phrasing, it’s a considerate commentary on how arrogant youths mock the intuition of the elderly without realizing that they’ll be there someday, too. The celebratory chorus, backing harmonies, and playfully reflective piano solo add to the enjoyment. Next, “You to Thank” harkens back to the speedy slice-of-life narration that made Ben Folds Five so charming, while “Landed”—one of a few tunes that tackles the trials and tribulations of romance—trades mournfully meditative verses for triumphant choruses about reclaiming your agency and freedom. Folds’ pianowork is especially sturdy and memorable, too, which is also the case on the accusatory and defiant “Trust,” in which he discusses the tried and true notion that relationships are only as strong as the level of confidence and honesty within them. There’s also the comparatively happy-go-lucky “Sentimental Guy” that’d be perfect for live performance in a piano bar.
Elsewhere, the songs are increasingly decorative and/or fragile. Case in point: the aforementioned “Jesusland,” a whimsical romp (with pretty block harmonies and orchestration) about how its messianic titular figure would feel if he saw how twisted the faith he’d inspired had developed. (A particularly resonate verse goes: “Town to town / Broadcast to each house, they drop your name / But no one knows your face / Billboards quoting things you’d never say / You hang your head and pray for Jesusland.”) Naturally, “Gracie” is like a lovely lullaby (in contrast to the vigorous dedication to his son, Louis, that is Rockin’ the Suburbs’ “Still Fighting It”), whereas “Give Judy My Notice” is a bittersweet bit of empowerment and yearning whose slide guitar complements suit its place of production, Nashville, TN. “Late” and “Time” are appropriately tender and nostalgic—for different reasons—while closer “Prison Food” ranks as the superlative track due to its subtle exploration of a dissolved coupling. With its hypnotic piano patterns, matter-of-fact singing, suspenseful and explosive dynamics, and rousing sentiments, you’re completely in tune with what Folds is experiencing. In particular, his continual croon of “Alone / Alone again” is sobering, and the dense bridge—” Floating by like a satellite / To pass the time / You’ll float by again”—is gripping and awesome. Add in the fact that “Prison Food” acts as the polar opposite of Rockin’ the Suburbs’ finale, “The Luckiest” (his greatest love song), and it becomes even more powerful.
Although other Ben Folds full-lengths are more exciting or amusing or varied, Songs for Silverman still does the best job of capturing his humanity and tactful craftsmanship from start to finish. It’s the album best suited not for laughs or leisurely hangouts, but for both the initial heartache and consequent victory of self-examination. It captures Folds at his most consistently vulnerable, poised, and honest, and it—like virtually everything else he does—remains a masterclass in fusing songwriting and performance for the greatest possible outcome.