"Belinda" / Ben Folds
Well, kiddies, here's what I have for you today -- the final track from Ben Folds' new album Lonely Avenue. It's not the saddest song on the album -- that would be the absolutely shattering "Picture Window," with "Claire's Ninth" running a close second. Those two are too sad even to write about. Listening to this album over and over (I had to write a review of it for Blogcritics) put me in a real existential funk, which was only exacerbated by the blustery wet autumn weather.
But don't blame Ben -- blame his lyricist. When you get to be insanely successful like Ben Folds, you can have your pick of writers to do your lyrics (not that Ben Folds even needs anybody else's lyrics), and so whom does Ben pick? Why, the same guy I'd pick -- that adorable British novelist Nick Hornby, whose spiky, bittersweet, zeitgeist-defining novels line my shelves. Just about every novel Nick Hornby has ever written has at least a couple of scenes that reduce me to gasping laughter, and another three or four that make my throat tighten and my eyes sting with tears. Shoot, even Hornby's newspaper columns have that effect on me. His book of music essays, Songbook, was what first inspired me to blog about pop music.
Putting together Hornby and Folds might have been too much of a good thing, but hell, these guys are such pros, they can perfectly calibrate the snarkiness and the sentiment and come up with just the right cocktail. Song after song on this album, they just nail it.
Hornby is an innate storyteller, and each of these songs come embedded with characters and plot. This song in some ways brings the album full circle, being told from the standpoint of a touring rock musician. It's not Folds, though, not exactly -- this singer is an oldies act, facing nostalgic audiences night after night, and every night they clamor for his showstopper, the one big hit of his career. (Clever line: "He always hears how much it means to people / There's a lot of fortysomethings wouldn't be in the world without it" -- which dates his audience as the 40-somethings' parents, well into their sixities.)
They came to hear "Belinda," and while he may save it to the very end (hence track 11), they won't go home until they've heard it. But here's the catch: He wrote it about his old sweetheart when they were still in love -- before he screwed around with a blond flight attendant and left Belinda. Years later, he is curdled with regret. And every night, he still has to get up on stage and sing this love song to the woman whose heart he broke.
Take a listen (and don't turn it off too soon -- wait 'til you've heard the actual song he's singing about).
Now, being the geeky fangirl I am, I've actually pondered this before. It's one thing for Paul McCartney to sing "My Love" and think about his late wife Linda, whom he loved till the day she died; it's another for Eric Clapton to sing "Layla" about his ex-wife Pattie Boyd Harrison Clapton, whom he divorced. How does he feel, singing that song? Does he picture Pattie to himself or does he just sing the notes? Ray Davies can cut a song like "Property" out of his repertoire if the memories of his divorce sting too much (was that Yvonne he left for Chrissie Hynde?), but what if you only had a couple of recognizable hits? Could Gerry Marsden have gone on singing "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" if the girl he wrote it for hadn't come back and married him? And what about the Left Banke -- if they'd stayed together, would they be forever singing "Walk Away Renee" about the bassist's girlfriend, that girl who got away? It makes you think.
So it's secretly thrilling to hear that Nick Hornby has been wondering this too. (Have you been reading my diary again, Nick?) Hey, he's no rock star himself, so he's free to imagine, just like he can imagine himself into the life of a nine-year-girl or a redneck Alaskan stud. He's a talented wordsmith and all, but it's that understanding of the human heart that really makes Nick Hornby so wonderful to read. And when you add in Ben Folds' plaintive melodic gifts -- well, it's a heartbreaking album. But in a good way.