The novelist Nick Hornby has proven himself to be singularly talented at capturing the voice of a fanatic. In “Fever Pitch,” he writes from the perspective of a football obsessive. In “How to Be Good”, he impersonates a woman who is fascinated by her own morality. In the famous “High Fidelity,” he writes from the perspective of a man who knows everything about music and nothing about women, and is equally compelled by both topics. So it’s unsurprising that, on Lonely Avenue, his new collaborative album with Ben Folds, the most successful songs are written from the perspective of characters that are driven by a singular, overwhelming focus.
Most of these character studies make for immensely successful songs. “Claire’s Ninth” turns a sympathetic third-person perspective on the eponymous Claire, who’s being taken out for her birthday by her newly divorced dad. Unfortunately for Claire, her father can’t help but focus on trying to get the waitress’s number and thus even on her special day, the focus is inevitably on her parents.
On the short, upbeat album opener, “A Working Day,” Hornby ridicules anonymous online criticism with such tongue in cheek lines as “A guy on the net thinks I suck and he should know/He’s got his own blog.” Perhaps the most poignant character study is made in the song “Belinda” about a washed up musician whose only hit song is dedicated to a woman he foolishly chose to leave.
Unfortunately, some of the studies are a bit too bold. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” qualifies as a misstep, as Folds tries to craft an anthem around Hornby’s faux sympathetic lyrics about being “a f*ckin redneck” who likes to “hang out with the boys, play some hockey, and kill some moose.” Even though some of these lyrics are lifted straight from Johnson’s Myspace page, they still come off as a patronizing attempt to simplify a public figure’s life.
A similar mistake occurs on “Doc Potus,” a song that’s probably meant as a tribute to the groundbreaking songwriter who wrote for Elvis and Ray Charles among others. Due to the necessarily short running time of a pop song, Hornby is forced to paint Potus with a broad brush as a man who wrote great songs in order to escape the bitterness of living in a wheelchair.
The music on the album is typical of Ben Folds moving from upbeat, jaunty piano songs to slower ballads. Folds is a practiced piano player and instead of showing off here, he fits his musical knowledge to the lyrics at hand. His voice is a bit of a double-edged sword; a juvenile whine that provides the right tone on the more caustic, witty songs, but can undermine the atmosphere on the songs that are a bit more serious. However, even Folds’ nasal voice doesn’t stop him from knocking the album’s highlight out of the park. “Picture Window” is a gorgeous ballad about the power of hope that’s somehow not corny at.
On paper, Lonely Avenue seems like a bold experiment, a collaboration between a practiced musician and a virgin songwriter. However, both Hornby and Folds have played their roles with élan, and the result is a strong, intelligent album that’s well worth a listen.
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