As with most pop-rockers tethered to the tinkly ivories, Ben Folds owes a sizable debt to rollicking revivalists like Elton John and Leon Russell (who, coincidentally, have teamed up for a duet album to be released next month). Undeniably, Folds’s assaultive, barroom key-hammering, featured prominently on early Ben Folds Five tracks such as “One Angry Dwarf,” sounds like the smarmy venting of a kid who taught himself to work through playground paranoia by burning down the mission, so to speak. Compositionally, however, Folds’s ethos has always veered much closer to “sensitive” singer-songwriters than to John’s spangled hit-making; updating the dense but sparkly treble/bass interplay of Carole King and Laura Nyro (as filtered through Todd Rundgren’s perverse tweaking of social niceties), Folds’s tune-smithing is a living handbook of four-note chord usage. When he’s overzealous, the songs turn into major-seventh soup (“Brainwascht,” “No Regrets”); when he’s judicious, even a slight transition can feel devastatingly off-kilter (“Alice Childress,” “Sentimental Guy”).
The fact that Folds can hardly be considered John’s heir is part of what makes Lonely Avenue such a conscientiously loving, under-the-hood paean to the aging glam-ham. Aping John’s creative process, Folds works with a literate lyricist this time around, novelist Nick Hornby, and as a result, many verses bear the curiously likeable yet enforced cadence that allowed “Where to Now St. Peter?” to audaciously soar. Folds also uses John’s longtime orchestra leader Paul Buckmaster to wring candor from snarky, soggy-cloth balladry; his stately, achy contributions to the post-modernly plaintive “Belinda” revise rather than reminisce the lovesick grandeur of classic tunes like “Come Down in Time.” One can even discern the influence of Tumbleweed Connection bassist Herbie Flowers in the itinerant, expressionistic bottom end.
If the instrumentation and collaborative nature of the album are purposefully derivative, however, Folds and Hornby transcend the disposability of conventional tributes by applying John’s—and late producer Gus Dudgeon’s—methodology to their own goals of sonic portraiture. Hornby, enjoying his maiden verbiage voyage on record, thankfully doesn’t bother with Bernie Taupin’s Oulipian sexism; he instead comes across as one suspects Randy Newman might if he learned to use Twitter and relax more during sex. The somewhat arch “Your Dogs” and the spot-on worm’s-eye political satire “Levi Johnston’s Blues” inhabit the frazzled heads of unreliable narrators with skeptical sensitivity; the syrupy reaction formation of “Picture Window” is a grief-stricken snapshot of insidious hospital pleasantries and truth-telling fireworks. And while he avoids emulating Folds’s gift for confessional humorism, Hornby’s storytelling prowess gives Lonely Avenue a structural piquancy that Way to Normal, Folds’s least interesting LP, lacked. The words here are only irritating when Hornby lets his cute flag fly: One senses that the synth-driven nomenclature ode to “Saskia Hamilton” was built entirely around a single inside-poetry joke (“Gonna marry her and it’ll all be idyllic/And my teacher just told me that she’s dactylic!”).
Folds once claimed that he’d be a much more efficient songwriter if he didn’t have to bother with lyrics, a statement that suggests the invisible travail required to pull off a stammering, nonplussed lament like “You Don’t Know Me.” And from Lonely Avenue‘s cheeky opening doodle on, one misses his inimitable ability to brocade the pithy with the profane. But while there’s no “centerpiece” hook like that of “Landed” here, the melodic concentration offered by Hornby’s involvement has facilitated Folds’s sturdiest batch of four-note chord progressions since Songs for Silverman. The fuzzed, bouncy moog of “From Above” swathes a vaguely Wings of Desire-inspired missed connection in retro roundness; the tonal distance between the elegiac “Doc Pomus” and its namesake is forgivable when it careens into a sing-along with the fluidity of a decade-spanning montage. The sole indulgence here is the staccato, glockenspiel-led “Password”—a middle-eight diluted to five minutes.
Appropriately, the most relentless earworm is also a vessel for Hornby’s most trenchant and most pained scenario, and perhaps as a subconscious nod to the limitations of domineering gloss, it’s the least Elton-y as well (even Buckmaster sits out while Folds fills the vertical space with shimmering piano octaves). “Claire’s Ninth” prosaically describes a divorced parent’s embittered reunion with his ex-wife and daughter for the latter’s birthday, and his subsequent filial guilt; the melting timbre of Folds’s descending chords communicates a weary contrition and, ultimately, the busted love beneath. After an eerie synchronicity is felt four tracks later with the enlarged mammary temptation of “Belinda,” Lonely Avenue definitively exfoliates its ersatz-‘70s, one-off joint-effort stance; more than anything, it’s proof that pop can push back against middle-class maturity woes with both rhetorical and diatonic thickness.