Way to Normal is definitely Folds’ worst album, but it isn’t bad by any means. It just feels like a big step down from the wonderful Songs for Silverman and Rockin’ the Suburbs — not to mention his work with Ben Folds Five.
This is a post-divorce album, which usually bodes well. So many artists are inspired by the failure of a relationship to do great and moving things. Folds, too, has been inspired but in a different direction. This is his most bitter and juvenile album, with anti-man song ‘Errant Dog’ and anti-woman song ‘Bitch Went Nuts’ typical of the sentiments here.
He does find room for a couple of elegant ballads, ‘Cologne’ and ‘Kylie in Connecticut,’ that feel a little out of place among their rhythm-heavy neighbors but are worthy additions to his catalog. And one song here, first single ‘You Don’t Know Me at All,’ is among the better tunes Folds has written in years. It’s a duet with indie singer-songwriter Regina Spektor that is propelled by a bouyant string section and one of his catchiest choruses.
Elsewhere, Folds does more with percussion than he has on any other release. ‘Free Coffee’ is an oddball, static-soaked track that’s among his most experimental work. ‘Dr. Yang’ and ‘The Frown Song’ are propulsive piano-rockers in the vein of early classics like ‘Uncle Walter’ (though not quite as good).
After five listens, I’m happier with the album than I was at first. Folds has an undeniable knack for melody and his piano playing is always superb. It’s the theme and lyrics that are the biggest letdown here. He has always had an angry and sarcastic streak, but in the past it has been tempered by his more earnest and sentimental side. I’m hoping his next release will truly find him on his way back to normal.