Ben Folds aims at normal, cracks open head in JapanBen Folds may have named his third solo LP Way To Normal, but the North Carolina native doesn’t have any such destination in mind. If you listen closely, you can see he’s on the highway to hell, or at least to “Effington,” his own version of The Truman Show. More movie set than true home, that song—and the entire album—reaffirms the long-suspected idea that Folds is more comfortable on the margins of art, respectability and society, a perpetual outsider reveling in his own eccentricities, from naming his former trio Ben Folds Five to mounting a project with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller and dubbing it “The Bens” to producing an album for William Shatner to palling around with “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Ben Folds' seventh studio recording begins appropriately with an Elton John spoof. After a string of introspective albums, the old-school (as in Ben Folds Five era) "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)," with its bombastic strings, "Benny and the Jets"-inspired piano motif and not-so-subtle refrain of "They're watching me, watching me fall" marks a return to the snarky, sarcastic days of old when Folds' signature blend of nerdy bravado and apathetic melodiousness wrested dominance of the proverbial cheap, college dorm stereo from They Might Be Giants. Like all of Folds' records, Way to Normal is full of melodic hooks and witty, semi-obvious barbs.
Those displeased by the sensitive singer-songwriter pose Ben Folds slipped into with his first two solo discs are likely to find some joy in Way to Normal, a return to the snark-filled piano-bashing and redolent melodies of his yesteryear. Tunes such as the fluffy "Bitch Went Nuts," strident "Errant Dog," and Elton John rip "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)" are goofy like They Might Be Giants yet never quite edgy enough. Perky hooks distinguish "You Don't Know Me," featuring Regina Spektor, and in an emotional moment, "Cologne" is penetrating and dark.