To begin with: this album sounds great. Ben calls it “chamber rock,” and it does have a Left Banke feel to it, viola, cello, French horn, but with none of the classical music, “I’m rewriting Mozart” affectations. These still sound like pop songs–like Ben Folds songs–and good ones, melodic, unexpected. There’s still lots of piano (which Ben plays) but the piano is well-integrated with the other instruments. In addition to the 8 “chamber rock” songs there’s a “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” which does have all the classical music, “I’m rewriting Mozart” affectations but is a pleasant enough listen, especially the 2nd Movement.
But I can’t get by the lyrics. Which are just so…dick-ish. Let’s go to the videotape: in the first song (“Capable of Anything”), Ben berates an ex-girlfriend because she’s too stupid to realize that saying someone is capable of anything also means they are capable doing bad stuff, using this an an excuse for the bad stuff he himself has done to her which she has had the audacity to hold against him.
In the second song (“Not a Fan”), he berates a soon-to-be ex-girlfriend because she is stupid enough to like a band that Ben considers pretentious…or, to like them too much, because at first he wants to be forgiving but then as he watches her watch them in concert it gets all under his skin and he decides he can’t stand it anymore and has to walk out.
In the third song (“So There”), he tells (the same? another?) ex-girlfriend that he won’t forget her because she’s left him nothing to forget–taught him nothing, left him nothing, is not worthy of even of a goodbye.
The fourth song (“Long Way To Go”) seems to be about the end of a relationship using some sort of timebomb metaphor, I don’t totally get it so I’ll give that one a pass. The fifth song (“Phone in a Pool”), my favorite on the album, a swirling piece with a Brian Wilson feel, seems to detail a nervous breakdown on the singer’s part–but it’s not really about the breakdown, it’s about his record company giving him shit about the breakdown, a universal sentiment if I’ve ever heard one.
In the sixth song (“Yes Man”) Ben berates an ex-girlfriend for not being honest enough with him, specifically not telling him he was getting fat–once again, a common relationship issue, I’m sure couple’s therapists hear that one all the time. (I was reminded of the Elvis Costello song where he berates a current girlfriend for trying too hard to please him.) Ben catches his breath with a song built around an idiotic musical double-entendre, at the end of which he makes one of the women from yMusic sing along. She giggles as she does so, probably out of fear that if she didn’t Ben would write a song on his next album about what a humorless bitch she is.
We end with song 8 (“I’m Not the Man”), a maudlin slab of rock-star self-pity that reminded me of how I stopped trying to be a Who fan after “The Who By Numbers” came out.
I’ve written in the past about singers (Loudon Wainwright, Father John Misty) who use a persona to own up to some ugly truths about human nature–but with them you get the sense they understand they are saying ugly things, that there’s some distance. I don’t get the sense Ben ever thinks he’s not completely in the right to feel what he feels on every single one of these songs. So it comes off less as owning up to ugly truths as venting petulant and tiresome pet peeves.
I still like the album. It’s better than the one Ben made when he had Nick Hornby writing the lyrics. I guess I just wish Ben was a better person, more charitable, more self-regarding…oops, now I’m starting to sound like one of his ex-girlfriends, and we know how Ben feels about that!