Ben Folds – Way to Normal (Epic, 2008)
purchase this album (Amazon)

Ben Folds has always been an artist I’ve appreciated more in theory than in practice. I’ve appreciated the theory enough to continue buying his albums for almost 15 years now, so I suppose the distinction is almost too fine to matter, but still — I can’t remember a time when my purchase of a Folds album didn’t result in a rush of immediate gratification (example: hearing “Jackson Cannery” in 1995 and thinking “Jesus, yes! Someone remembers how to play a piano”) followed by a vague but persistent sense of disappointment (example: the way I felt after hearing “Rockin’ the Suburbs” for the fifth or sixth time).

Folds’ last album, Songs for Silverman, has been a bone of contention among his fans since it was released in 2005; for some, its largely placid soundscapes signaled a leap forward in maturity for the fortysomething father, while for others, it was a cold hash of MOR ballads and self-conscious attempts at humor. But even at his most awkwardly divisive, Folds always manages to get in a solid punch or two — I confess to getting a little choked up the first time I heard Silverman‘s daddy-daughter track, “Gracie,” and even if it was mostly just because my wife and I had our first child that year, you get the point: He may not always be able to get out of his own way, but Ben Folds has sharp pop instincts, which is why his fans expect so much from him.

I may not be a hardcore fan, but I was more than mildly intrigued by the prospect of Folds’ latest, Way to Normal — enough so that I ponied up the $30 for the “deluxe edition” version that comes bound in book-style binding and includes a DVD (which I will almost certainly never watch). I could have harassed a publicist for a free copy — probably even a free advance copy — but I was so sure Folds was going to bounce back from Silverman that I was willing to lay my money on the line.

Folds, you fucker. You’ve scammed me again.

Way to Normal is not, it must be said, a bad album — in fact, Folds hits all the points you’d expect, from pretty ballads (“Cologne”) to foulmouthed jokes (“Bitch Went Nuts”), all laced with a piping hot stream of bitterness and irony. And yet, it might be the most curiously uninvolving record I’ve heard all year. The more I listen to it, the less I care. Folds leaked a pair of tracks before Normal‘s release: “Hiroshima,” a one-note, self-referencing gag that sounded like Ben Folds trying to make a Ben Folds song, and “You Don’t Know Me” (download), a catchy little ditty that found Folds doing what he does best — squeezing a few more drops of blood out of the stone that is the pop breakup song.

On balance, unfortunately, Way to Normal is much more “Hiroshima” than “You Don’t Know Me” — even when he isn’t straining too hard for “Song for the Dumped”-style post-breakup brilliance, he’s wandering middling, forgettable territory, as on “Errant Dog” and “Brainwascht.” There isn’t much that’ll make you want to reach for the skip button, but there’s also precious little to inspire repeat listenings. The popular knock on the album seems to be that Folds didn’t do a good enough job of balancing his bitterness with his funny side, but I don’t think that’s it — he doesn’t sound pissed off so much as he seems to be going through the motions, reaching for the same points on the curve he’s traced in the past. Whether this is because it’s what he thinks his fans want to hear, or simply because he was out of gas, I don’t know, but I’m relatively certain I’ve reached my getting-off point with Folds. However, I’m even more certain that some of you must be happy with Way to Normal, and I’d like to hear from you here. What am I missing? What should I go back and listen for?