Songs for Silverman
en Folds Five, like Wu Tang, were for the children. A particularly cynical, bitter, and enamoured of 70s radio pop child, but a child nonetheless. There has never been a better band to soundtrack adolescence: Whatever and Ever Amen, for instance, cruises from self-alienation to misogyny to abortion to hipper-than-thoudom in under an hour. Plus they had tunes for days, more hooks than Bob Nudd, and enough wry humour to make you wish for a few seconds that it was 1974 so they could have been the biggest band on the planet.
So it’s weird to see Folds, and his audience, grow up. Because solo Ben Folds is for those with down-payments on their mortgages and expanding waistlines. The sights of Folds’ sniper rifle of irony are no longer trained at hipsters watching The Rockford Files (face it, James Murphy cries in his sleep over the fact that he didn’t write “Battle of Who Could Care Less”) and KoRn. Songs for Silverman is the album where we all log on to Friends Reunited and find out that the class clown now works as an insurance underwriter. The album is devoid of any of the smirking, sarcasm, or arched-eyebrows that characterised Ben Folds Five’s entire oeuvre, and his solo output to date. He’s got a wife and kids nowadays. He don’t need this shit.
Yes, he’s gone soft, but he’s not gone totally rotten. Musically, he’s at the strongest he’s ever been. You can tell that he’s quite deliberately outgrown his indie audience now because you actually enjoy hearing him sing. On tracks like “Landed” and “Bastard” he goes positively American Idol with his voice: tours with Rufus Wainwright have obviously rubbed off on him. “Bastard” shows remarkable restraint as well: whereas the Folds of old would have treated that title as carte blanche to fill the lyric sheet with more profanities than the typical Geto Boys track, here he gets away with two “bastards,” two “shits,” and an “ass.” It seems his iTunes pre-album work out cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” got all of that out of his system.
But it isn’t all plain sailing though. Indeed, when, as for most of the album, Folds decides to take the final plunge into the waters of Radio 2, it can get very very dull. “You To Thank” features the kind of cocktail lounge piano jazz hell solo that Jamie Cullum would eat his Carhartts for, whilst “Late” pays tribute to Elliot Smith, and comes across as laudable but interminable. “Sentimental Guy” is the kind of weak album filler track that Ben Folds Five always made room for, and “Time” has “Weird” Al Yankovic on it. Like I say, Folds has nothing to do with comedy nowadays.
Ben Folds is now “admirable” rather than being an “asshole” as he was during his artistic peak, but annoyingly enough, it was the very assholishness that gave us “Song for the Dumped” and “Bad Idea (Retarded)” that made him such a captivating figure and a genuine lightbulb for teen angst moths everywhere to flock to. Songs for Silverman—an album by a decent human being.