Ben Folds is a piano man with an addiction to character sketches -- his '97 hit album, Whatever and Ever Amen, had two: "Kate Army" and "Steven's Last Night in Town." He outdid himself last time out with An Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, a full LP devoted to a single fictional psyche. But here's his first solo effort, Rockin' the Suburbs, in which we meet a whopping seven of Folds' imaginary friends: Annie, Zak, Sara, Fred, Lisa, Stan, and Cathy. It's not as if Folds is the first to till this turf; recall "Hey Jude" or "What's It All About, Alfie?" But there's a reason Paul McCartney and Hal David used this convention sparingly: Who needs "Bob's Long and Winding Road" or "Walk On By, Felicia"? A writer can use characters to get some distance from the self-conscious first person, but there's no good reason to write songs with universal themes but for a name tacked on from the phone book.
Of course, the names (Messner aside) are supposed to be archetypal (common names for common people whose foibles mirror our own), and as the title suggests, this album is more consciously pastoral than any of either previous. Over the catchy, Joe Jackson- and Todd Rundgren-influenced piano pop that's become Folds' trademark, "Annie Waits" describes a woman whose life is a shadowy, timid routine. With arching melodrama, "The Ascent of Stan" indicts a radical turned professor for his hypocrisy, while "Zak and Sara" concerns a pair of kids lured into oblivion by pop culture and drugs.
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But Rockin' the Suburbs isn't just Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio set to pop. Like "Brick," Folds' big radio hit, its most moving stories contain no main character but the singer himself. "Still Fighting It" is a song to his son. "I picked you up and everything changed," he exalts; "You're so much like me, I'm sorry," he laments. An undisguised love note to his wife, "The Luckiest" is the bittersweet musing of someone deeply, romantically in love: "What if I'd been born fifty years before you in a house on the street where you live/Maybe I'd be outside as you passed on your bike/Would I know?" While some of the character pieces are pumped, belted, and emoted like numbers from a Broadway musical, on these, Folds' Brian Wilson-like tenor becomes breathless and sweet, his melodies gentler -- you can veritably hear his fears and passions coming through. Settled in Australia with a little family, maybe it's time for Folds to give up on his "Eleanor Rigbys" and write from his own heart, full-time.