Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Kylie from Connecticut" /
Ben Folds

I've got me a nice pile of shiny Christmas CDs to work through, and right at the top is this new thing from Ben Folds, Way To Normal. It's a pretty wondrous thing from start to finish, full of that peculiar Ben Folds mix of keen-edged social satire and bittersweet tenderness. Folds really has become our poet of middle-class suburban American life, just like Ray Davies was for English suburbs forty years ago; he chronicles our neurotic consumer culture with a suitably jaundiced eye. Anybody who wants to get a good dose of snarkiness only has to listen to "The Frown Song" or "The Bitch Went Nuts," or his Elton John tribute "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head" to know that Ben lets no one off easy.

Later on in the CD, however, he gets more reflective, winding up with this heartbreaking track. Like Elvis Costello's "Long Honeymoon," or like Ben's own "Annie Waits," it's written from a woman's perspective, but it's not the Kylie of the title -- Kylie never appears in this song at all, in fact. She's just a name on a phone message slip that our heroine finds among her husband's things, reading: "Kylie is calling from Connecticut / She says you've got the number." That's all the note says, but once she's seen it, the wife can't get it out of her mind.

"She believes there are things you shouldn't know about / When you've been married for 35 years," Ben tells us. Wow, these people have been married for 35 years? Not likely subjects for a rock song -- but then, Ben Folds' music isn't really rock. This track is mostly just Ben's nasal everyman tenor and a piano, although, granted, Ben Folds' piano is as good as an orchestra (I can't think of anybody but Joe Jackson who can take the piano in so many directions). The melody strains urgently upward when he sings out Kylie's name, but otherwise it hurries around fretfully, brief little breathless surges of anxiety, while his fingers churn restlessly up and down the keyboard. How else should a song about despair and disappointment sound?

And soon the plot thickens. Our nameless (and neglected, I'll bet) heroine plays this don't-ask-don't-tell game for her own reasons: "And her heart belongs to a man that she hadn't seen / Since a magical night when the children were small." How do you read that line? Is there an old lover in her past? That would explain why she can smell infidelity in that simple note. But another possibility strikes me: Is that man she hasn't seen for so long her husband -- or rather, the side of her husband that she loves, which has long disappeared? I can't tell you which of those two options makes me sadder.

Ben knows it's sad, and he starts to layer on shimmery bursts of drums, then melancholy strings; by the musical interval, it's morphed into movie soundtrack music, with emotion-wringing dissonant cellos, the whole moody works. Overdone? I don't think so; it just shows that he takes this ordinary woman's silent misery seriously. Meanwhile, she goes on agonizing: "It keeps coming back as she's reading old letters / That she left in the closet with the pictures she cherished / That she kept to herself for a good 30 years." What a fruitless little hell she's driving herself into.

There's a whole world in this song; a whole life in it. And yet nothing really happens --a woman reads a slip of paper and then broods about it. How Ben Folds manages to pack so much into this tiny event astounds me; there's all sorts of melodrama trying to rush in and take over, but he manages to keep it just out of reach. (I have to admit, this song makes "Eleanor Rigby" look positively cheesy.) Above all, I marvel that he invests so much in a scenario about a middle-aged suburban housewife. But after all, why not?

Kylie From Connecticut sample

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