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Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011

Ben Folds and Nick Hornby’s Dispatches From the Malcontent

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Nick Hornby is not a songwriter. He has occasionally written about songs (most extensively in his 2003 essay collection Songbook), and often written about characters who listen to songs (most famously in his 1995 breakthrough novel High Fidelity), but until his recent collaboration with Ben Folds, Lonely Avenue, he’d never attempted to draft actual songs, and the lyrics he penned for that album betray his background in literary writing—a very different art than songwriting, Folds explains.

“If you view pop music lyrics as poetry, they usually don’t hold up very well, because they’re not really poetry,” says the singer and pianist, who composed Lonely Avenue’s music around Hornby’s lyrics. “Songwriting is its own art form, where you’re usually drawing on the experiences that the listener brings to the song. It’s a bit like reading tea leaves; you’re using just a couple of details that might resonate with people, so somebody might hear a song and think, ‘God, she let me down, too!’ Songwriting is loosening up people enough to see something in their own life. Nick is not doing that.”

Hornby wrote Lonely Avenue’s songs like short stories, crafting first-person character studies of cynics and outsiders very much like those that populate his books. There’s a great deal of Holden Caulfield’s DNA in Hornby’s malcontents, but where Salinger’s protagonist was the prototypical unreliable narrator, Hornby’s characters are unwaveringly reliable: They bluntly state their beliefs, thoughts, motivations and conflicts in unequivocal terms. Hornby isn’t interested in the ambiguity that’s so integral to many songs. If the British author had written “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” no doubt he’d have had Meat Loaf spell out exactly what he would not do and explain in vivid detail why he would not do it.

“I think Nick writes great, wonderfully flawed and very honest characters,” Folds says. “I think he never underestimates a reader. He’s allowing us all to look at a person that he’s made very transparent, but the character is often in on it. A lot of these are characters who are finding a place and time to confess.”

Perhaps the most oversized of all of Lonely Avenue’s characters is the one who actually exists: Levi Johnston, Sarah Palin’s erstwhile son-in-law to-be. “Levi Johnston’s Blues” paints a sympathetic, though not necessarily flattering, portrait of the teenager as the Palin camp pressures him into a very public marriage to his pregnant girlfriend.

Despite their obvious differences, the diminutive, proudly geeky Folds related to Johnston, a brusque, hockey-playing, moose-shooting, self-proclaimed redneck. The story of Johnston and Bristol Palin echoed the unplanned pregnancy that inspired Folds’ breakthrough hit, “Brick.”

“I was really fascinated with Levi,” Folds says. “I really empathized with him, because I also grew up fast. I got my parents’ car stolen, and all this other stuff happened, and I felt like I was on stage with a pregnant girlfriend in front of everyone in the world. What Nick did is take this symbol of somebody thrown on stage and contrast it with the bravado behind Johnston’s Myspace postings, where he wrote all these sentiments like ‘I’m a fuckin’ redneck, I’m going to kick your ass.’ He puffs his chest out, but it’s a very scary moment, and he’s being told by everybody else what he has to do.

“That’s the whole problem with growing up,” Folds continues. “You’re big enough to make babies, and Levi was big enough to have his own Myspace where he could write all these things, but you’re not really in control of your own life.”

Though the two don’t have concrete plans, Folds says he’s considering future collaborations with Hornby.

“I’m always open to anything that’s going to make me write,” Folds says. “I have a lot of songs that run through my head all day long, but they don’t necessarily have any context. I hum them for a while, they’re pretty, then I forget them. Nick’s lyrics give me context to work with. Nick and I are definitely interested in writing a musical together. I think that would be the next logical step, because in a musical there’s no wondering why a song was written. Each song is there because the characters have something they need to sing about.”

Ben Folds’
Lonely Avenue tour stops at the Riverside Theater on Friday, Jan. 28, at 8:30 p.m.

Evan Rytlewski is the music editor for the
Shepherd Express.