Hope you've got your internet service back after Sandy -- because we are ready to rock and ROLL. And who better to kick it off than Ben Folds, newly reunited with the Ben Folds Five (a trio, naturally) for their new album The Sound of the Life of the Mind.
My love for Ben Folds should be well-known by now to readers of this blog. (Check out the labels panel to the right to link to my Ben Folds posts.) I'll confess that this is at least partially a fangirl crush, the latest chapter in my lifelong Thing for Rockers in Glasses. But when someone's this insanely talented, you don't need excuses for liking them. My previous posts have showcased tender, wistful Ben Folds songs, but that's not a fair sampling; most of his music is anything but. Hey, if I could play the piano as well as Ben does, I too would grab any opportunity to show off my freakishly mad keyboard skills.
As this video amply demonstrates:
I'm glad I found this video, because right out of the gate, this track became my favorite on the album. I love the way it underlays power-punk with a jazzy substratum, propelling itself forward at an almost delirious pace. It's all we can do to keep up -- which, face it, is a lot like life.
You see, it's not just the glasses, not just the wicked piano playing, that makes Ben Folds one of My Special Guys. It's the lyrics. It's always the lyrics with me, isn't it? (Well, except for Paul McCartney...) I'm not just talking poetic imagery and clever word play -- I want lyrics that grapple intelligently with life. That's why I love Graham Parker, why Ray Davies is my hero, why I prefer the older Nick Lowe, why John Hiatt and Joe Jackson and Greg Trooper and Guy Clark have places permanently set at my table.
And this song demonstrates perfectly how Ben Folds has earned his merit badge from me. It starts out conventionally enough, with Folds advising his listeners to take emotional risks -- "You might put your love and trust on the line" in verse one, and in verse two, "And if you're paralyzed by a voice in your head / It's the standing still that should be scaring you instead." My shrink couldn't say it better. Let Usher and Chris Brown rap about unh-hunh-unh-hunh all night; this is what real people deal with -- being afraid to admit they love someone, or need someone. As the music gets us revved up, it's easy to get on board with emotional courage.
But Ben Folds has bigger fish to fry. He's got cliches to smash ("There will be times you might leap before you look / There'll be times you'll like the cover and that's precisely why you'll love the book") and the darker side of human nature to navigate ("Sometimes it's not subjective: wrong and right / Deep down you know it's downright wrong but you're invincible tonight"). Sometimes it's inevitable that by being true to your gut you'll hurt someone: "Despite your grand attempts the chips are set to fall / And all the stories you might weave cannot negotiate them all." It's a moral conundrum, in other words. Rock songs rarely traffic in this sort of gray territory, but Ben Folds goes there time and again.
Notice how, somewhere mid-song, he drops the generic advice to face his own personal firing squad. Someone -- girlfriend? wife? ex-wife? -- has evidently been reading him the riot act, and he finally addresses her, rising to a pleading register for the chorus: "So tell me what I said I'd never do / Tell me what I said I'd never say / Read me off a list of the things I used to not like but now I think are OK." It's the ultimate defense -- yes, I've gone back on my word. Yes, I've been inconsistent. Why? Because humans are inconsistent. Humans make mistakes. Humans change. He's celebrating the glorious contradictions that make us human, and if you can't deal with that . . .
And then he turns the tables, switching pronouns in the last chorus. Now it's up to her to admit she's saying things she never said she'd say, et cetera. And the ultimate switcheroo: "Cause I used to not like you, but now I think you're okay." If being inconsistent brought them together, why fight it?
As Ray Davies would say, it's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world we live in. That's why I like songwriters who deal with the muddle, instead of reducing it all to black and white. You'd never think from first impressions that a cheeky, mischievous, cuss-addicted guy like Ben Folds would be writing Music for Grownups, but that's what he does. And that's why I love him. (That and the glasses...)
PS Catch The Five on Jimmy Kimmel's show Monday night, November 5th. Hope they'll sing this one!