Of course Nick Hornby and Ben Folds would be pals. Of course! I can just imagine them friending each other on Facebook, or better yet, sitting down to dinner one night in 2009 and hatching this plan to do a pop album together.
Surely these guys were born to collaborate with each other. Hornby’s abiding love of pop music has informed several of his books – just think of High Fidelity, Songbook, or Juliet, Naked (Never has anyone so skewered the Internet fan forum culture). And the multi-talented Ben Folds has a gift for sophisticated pop songs that are also short stories: tender tales like “Annie Waits,” “Still Fighting It,” “Cologne,” or “Kylie From Connecticut.” For years I’ve loved their separate work for similar reasons, drawn to their shared sensibility – a twisted braid of melancholy, sarcasm, and wise empathy.
Such a high-profile project could easily have gone off the rails, but I’m happy to report that Lonely Avenue lives up to all my expectations. It’s not just an opportunistic mash-up between one of my favorite novelists and one of my favorite songwriters. This album delivers the same rich pleasures as Hornby’s novels and Folds’ best songs — I find myself chuckling one moment, blinking away tears the next.
It wasn’t exactly a fifty-fifty collaboration – Hornby e-mailed lyrics from his home base in London, and Folds took them into a Nashville studio where he wrote melodies, worked out arrangements, and performed the songs, singing lead vocals and playing the piano with his band (So much for my fantasy of Nick and Ben holed up in some remote cabin, thrashing out these songs over pots of coffee and jugs of cheap red wine). But for two prolific pros like these guys, long-distance collaboration was apparently a snap. With his vast paintbox of musical styles — from blues to electronica to rockbilly to lush symphonic movie music – Folds discovered new dimensions to each set of lyrics, often surprising even Hornby himself.
Both Folds and Hornby have a keen eye for pop culture, and there is topical humor aplenty here, in songs like the snarky electronic-flavored “Working Day,” the fatuous boasts of an on-line artiste, or the very funny “Password,” a soul-dripping, synth-splashed waltz exploring a guy’s attempts to guess his girlfriend’s on-line password. Other songs are feats of ventriloquism, getting inside the heads of real historical figures like wheelchair-bound rock-and-roll songwriter Doc Pomus or overnight celebrity Levi Johnston, better known as Bristol Palin’s baby-daddy (Who knew Levi Johnston could be spun into a figure of sympathy?).
But for me, the heart of the album is its finely-etched portraits of everyday people blundering through imperfect lives. There’s “Practical Amanda,” a gentle acoustic ode to a woman who specializes in redeeming unpromising men; “From Above” is a jazzy sort of Sliding Doors fantasy about two soulmates who never meet. The winsome “Claire’s Ninth” narrates a young girl’s disastrous birthday celebration with her feuding divorced parents. “Belinda” portrays a singer who must repeat, night after night, his one hit song – a song he wrote to a girlfriend he betrayed and lost long ago (I don’t recall ever hearing this scenario played out, and yet how common this must be). If you really want your emotions wrung, listen to the plangent “Picture Window,” about a parent grieving at a desperately ill child’s bedside. It’s not the usual stuff of pop songs, but Folds pulls it off with a magician’s flair.
That title Lonely Avenue may have sprung from a reference to Doc Pomus’ 1957 hit for Ray Charles, but the name becomes more and more appropriate with each successive track. Hornby’s lyrics drive to the core of these troubled souls, and Folds’ melodies – edgy, yearning, passionate — notch up the emotions even further. His supple, boyishly earnest vocals help too, as do the arrangements — Folds has no fear of throwing in a string section or a mournful horn to underscore the songs’ inherent humor or pathos. The best collaborations elicit something new from each partner, and on that score, Ben Folds and Nick Hornby have hit this one out of the park.