Songs for Silverman
From "Battle of Who Could Care Less" in 1997 through "Rockin' the Suburbs" on his last album, Folds has always written songs which humorously tweak the conventions of pop youth culture, but that perspective is noticeably absent on Songs for Silverman. Folds begins the album with "Bastard," a song about teenagers who are so jaded they could be accurately described as an old bastard, but it's a much more serious tone than predecessor songs in the Ben Folds catalog. "You get smaller while the world gets big," he sings, "The whiz man'll never fit you like the whiz kid did."
Perhaps Folds himself is conscious of shaking a "whiz kid"-type image. But there's a bit less humor on this CD, and more of a sense of sadness. The album's closing song, "Prison Food," repeats "alone" twenty times throughout its four minutes, for example. "Time" is a relationship breakup song.
The album's emotional high-water mark comes with "Late," Folds' elegy to Elliott Smith, who died in 2003. Folds' touching lyrics discuss Smith as both performer and person. "Elliott, man, you played a fine guitar and some dirty basketball," Folds eulogizes in the song. Ultimately, he was a fan of Smith just like any of us, singing, "The songs you wrote got me through a lot, just want to tell you that, but it's too late."
But although largely lacking in the overt wry humor of earlier albums, Songs for Silverman is not a downer. Besides Folds typical soaring melodies and exuberant playing, he also has a song like "Gracie," written about his young daughter. "You nodded off in my arms watching TV," he sings. "I won't move you an inch/Even though my arm's asleep."
Folds fanatics will note that one song, "Give Judy My Notice," is a remake of a song he recorded for a non-album EP in 2003 titled Speed Graphic. While the original was a straight solo piano recording, the update features layered vocal harmonies and slide guitar courtesy of frequent Steve Earle sideman Bucky Baxter.
Perhaps the most unusual element to this album, especially given its relative reflexiveness, is the appearance of none other than Weird Al Yankovic singing backing vocals on one song called "Time." Folds says that Yankovic was in town so they just had him drop by and sing along on the song's chorus.
Songs for Silverman is not as much of an obvious album as his last, or any of the Ben Folds Five records. But it has great songcraft and a richness that becomes more apparent with repeated listens.