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.