There’s just no telling how much Ben Folds influenced his old bandmates and how much they influenced him, but it’s safe to say one thing: Folds may play most of the instruments on his debut solo album, but it sounds a hell of a lot like Ben Folds Five.
The onetime Chapel Hill resident, a multi-platinum rockstar so famous he has his own Internet chat-group, now lives in Australia with his wife and twin boys. Rockin’ the Suburbs reflects his inevitable maturation, its most prominent lyrical themes being growing up and growing old. A number of the songs ooze with the dark melancholy that typified late BFF material. As usual, Folds’ character sketches are dead-on. There’s the “textbook heavyman” in “The Ascent of Stan,” the obsolete newspaperman in “Fred Jones Part 2,” and the spoiled, suicidal title character in the chilling “Carrying Cathy.” He includes two jaw-droppingly beautiful and intensely personal numbers–“Still Fighting It,” an emotionally unfiltered ode to his kids, and “The Luckiest,” a valentine for his wife. Even bouncier numbers like the Bacharach-esque “Losing Lisa” are decidedly sweet-and-sour.
Of course, Folds still has a juvenile streak a mile wide. And as always, he employs the schtick as a brilliant balance for his more somber material. He name-checks his old bass player–“You took a trip and climbed a tree at Robert Sledge’s party”–in “Not the Same,” a song about an acid-induced religious conversion that’s funny enough to be on the next Tenacious D record. He ends the cheeky but straight-laced “Fired” with an arena-rock flourish, yelping “Muthafuckaaaaa!”
But the creme de la creme, if you will, is the record’s title track. Folds drops the piano in favor of a schmaltzy keyboard, spoofing modern-day jam-bands and shrill rap-rock (can you say Rage Against The Machine?) as he sings earnestly about his “white-boy pain.” With trite alt-rock producer Ben Grosse heaping on the gloss, the song finds Folds at his subversive best, trying to pander his way onto the radio just so he can stage his own coup d’etat. Either that or he’s become one of his own characters, face to face with his mortality, making one last lunge for the brass ring.