Ben Folds is walking dangerously close to the edge. While he’s always been the thinking-geek’s piano pounder, he might be asking the impossible with his latest single, “Rockin’ The Suburbs.” The guitar-soaked—yeah, guitar-soaked—title track to his new album can be taken two ways: a simple novelty number that pokes fun at all the rawkers of the world, or serious and sarcastic social commentary about the state of music.
It’s certainly easier to take the former—who wants to ponder a pop song, anyway? And Folds is well aware that those he’s flipping the finger to will just think it’s a part of his big bag o’ pranks. He has a history of making fun of folks. His former group, Ben Folds Five, dropped snotty smart bombs on jerks, jocks and the elderly alike. But now his own man, Folds wants people to see the double-edge of that lyrical penknife he carries in his pocket protector. Sure, lines like “All alone in my white-boy pain/Shake your booty as the band complains” are good for a chuckle. But there’s some heavy crap going on under that goofy veil.
“There’s a whole genre of music out there that’s based on being pissed off,” Folds says. “I started wondering who was buying it and if those people should really be that pissed off. I mean, really, Stevie Wonder grew up black and blind and made joyous music. Billy Corgan grew up white and middle-class and all his songs are depressing. But tell me who’s had the harder time.”
The irony is that some of radio’s biggest angst bunkers are starting to throw “Rockin’ The Suburbs” into the mix. The track is getting played next to Limp Bizkit and Staind. Folds couldn’t be any happier. “That’s just really funny to me,” Folds says. “I don’t even know if they get the joke.”
It’s an important coup for Folds, though. With the fading of the Alternative Nation and the rise of the angry white male, Folds’ quirky piano pop seems in serious peril. Just look at the Five’s last record, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. While the disc’s dark and somber feel was lauded by critics, it failed to make a serious dent in the charts, even after the success of “Brick” and “Battle of Who Could Care Less” only a couple years earlier. And while Folds’ first post-break-up record is getting the same treatment from the press, the pianist is concerned no one will care that he has a new album.
“I just didn’t even know if anyone would notice,” he says flatly. “Normally, I never look at the reviews of my records, but at this point in my career I think I should just to see if I’m still supposed to be doing this.”
One listen through Rockin’ The Suburbs, though, proves that Folds is still in fine form. The record plays like a greatest hits comp, with Folds sampling from each period of the Five’s career: irreverent piano punk, melodic and touching ballads, somber and sweeping pop. It’s a welcome change from the bleak feel of Reinhold Messner, which could have been helped by a few sadistic moments—something Folds was aware of when he sat down to write Rockin’ The Suburbs. “Reinhold was such an ‘I-me-my’ record, like going over to someone’s house and complaining, and I didn’t want to do that again,” he says.
To combat that, most of the songs on Suburbs revolve around characters desperately fighting against the white picket hell of the American dream. Songs like “Zak and Sara” and “Annie Waits” are full of people striving to fit the societal norm only to get lost in the average. “Fired” is the perfect anthem for the recently downsized—a nice fuck-off disguised as pithy pop. And “The Luckiest,” a slow ballad with more than a few similarities to the Mohammed Ali-based “Boxing” off the Five’s self-titled debut, is a pensive number about finally finding that one person who understands. Folds wraps it all up in an 88-key bow, using his trademark Baby Grand as an anchor for orchestrated marvels and pogo rock alike. And while Folds realizes he might take a few hits for seemingly distancing himself from his music, he says that Suburbs hits closer to home than most will be willing to see.
“I don’t write anything I don’t care about,” Folds says. “I always write about what I relate to. Most of this is based on real people, just fictionalized a bit. I’m not a singer. I have to have a connection to what I’m singing about or I don’t buy into it, and people notice that.”
One topic that Folds kept clear of was the demise of the Five—for good reason. While the group was never going to fill stadiums, it had built up a strong cult of the intellectual and the alienated. When Folds announced last year that the group was ending its run, fans were pissed. The group’s flighty feel had always been a nice foil to the ever-enraging guitar rock on the radio. Who was going to proudly raise the geek flag from here on out? Even the promises that each of the members—Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee—was going to work on solo material didn’t seem to satiate the rabid. But Folds says the dismantling of the Five wasn’t a malicious thing. It was just time.
“We were just tired as a unit,” he says. “We worked really hard and lived in each other’s pockets for six years and making music together just wasn’t natural at that point. If somebody handed me a check for millions of dollars, maybe I would have done it. But we didn’t enjoy playing as a band anymore, that’s all.”
Ben Folds will not, as previously announced, be performing for the X96 Big Ass Show, because he’s wary of airplanes these days—you don’t know what it’s like, being a rock star who’s afraid to fly, sham on. Regardless, Rockin’ the Suburbs is a fine album.