Ben Folds finally comes into his own on solo set

Jon Dieringer

Credit: Beth Rankin

It’s become clear in the last several years that Ben Folds has emerged as the “cult performer” of his day, selling out shows regularly and commanding a large following despite his relative lack of presence in the mainstream music scene.

Though largely ignored by his record label, Folds has managed to independently put out a series of EPs on iTunes — four if you count The Bens project with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller — which, taken together, does make a fine album in itself.

His new album, Songs for Silverman, represents a more serious, consistent set of songs than those efforts and manages to throwback to his older days while pushing himself forward.

Folds’ relative lack of proficiency with other instruments gave his solo debut Rockin’ the Suburbs a quirky, simplistic charm that made the album grow with repeated listens and lent the songs added dimension.

For Silverman, the instrumentation has shifted back to “classic” Folds: piano, electric bass and drums.

But here the other musicians aren’t given as much creative latitude as Folds gave himself, and they never really establish an individual presence. The result initially feels something like a Ben Folds Five album minus the personalities of Darren Jesse and Robert Sledge.

But that’s only on the surface. As the album unravels, it becomes clear that this is the reason Ben Folds left the Five.

Songs for Silverman has the most directly personal songs of Folds’ career. While there was no doubt a great amount of personal feeling put into his past work, the songs still had a universal appeal. “Gracie,” about his 3-year-old daughter and “Late,” about how the death of Elliott Smith affected him simply because he enjoyed his music, simply wouldn’t have went well with the punk-like drive of the old band.

That doesn’t mean that Folds’ sense of humor is gone, but it’s more subtle and restrained. “We were standing out on the sidewalk / With our tattoos that looked like rings,” he sings on “You to Thank,” a song about the South’s tendency to force people to marry young. But on the cheekily titled “Jesusland,” Folds plays it completely straight, bitterly wondering what “The Man” would think if he walked across the country.

In addition to those two songs, there are also two instant Folds classics (though in the past, more have always revealed themselves after repeated listens): “Give Judy My Notice,” the sparse melancholic number from the Speed Graphic EP re-recorded with a pedal steel guitar to make it sound like a woulda-been pop hit on ’60s AM radio.

And “Time,” a strong but rather typical break-up song adorned with one of the boldest melodies Folds has ever written.

Ben Folds Five stopped just when they were getting truly interesting, and until now it’s always been a teasing notion in the back of the mind to wonder what they might have done next time, and if there will be a next time.

But, for good or ill, that’s no longer an issue. Songs for Silverman is finally the fully formed arrival of Ben Folds as a solo artist, a collection of songs that feel like they were written for him alone to play.

Contact Pop Arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected].