For pop music's dwindling club of truly dynamic songwriters, there may be no higher compliment than a fan base divided against itself. Consistent solidarity, after all, speaks to monotony, and predictability only helped when people still bought records. Thus, all the more kudos to Ben Folds, a man whose fans—as a credit to his work—have never been on the same page.
"I don't know what it's like to be an artist who puts the same exact thing out all the time, or who stays particularly consistent," Folds says. "I just kind of have to do what I feel like doing at the time, and let everyone else sort through it."
Back in 1997, Folds fans were sorting through the relative street credentials and artistic merits of the Ben Folds Five's remarkably dissimilar breakout hits—the tear-jerking ballad "Brick" and the piano-pounding nerd-pop anthem "Song for the Dumped." Twelve years later, the debate has moved to online message boards, where fans now argue over whether they prefer the soft and sensitive Ben of 2005's Songs for Silverman or the raucous and sarcastic Ben of his latest solo album, Way to Normal.
"I think it's cool to have the opinion, and I think it's really nice that they care enough to go on and have a debate about it," Folds says. "I certainly don't think I'm capable of convincingly riding the line all the time. But I think it's nice that it's somewhat built in for me. When I make a more introspective record, the next thing I feel like doing is beating the shit out of it. Then I do that and I go back to the other one. The fortunate thing is, I get to keep making records. So, shit, I'll do something different next time, and someone else will be happy. Everyone gets their turn!"
On the surface, Way to Normal sounds like a healthy, 180-degree turn from the lovely but super-earnest Songs for Silverman. The mood is peppier, sillier, and angrier, in equal doses, and the 42-year-old Folds is clearly reconnecting with the vigorous energy that was such a key to his past success. This tone is set right from the get-go, with opening track "Hiroshima (B B B Benny Hit His Head)," a punchy Elton John homage that recounts the true tale of Folds falling off the stage at a show in Japan and bashing his head open. "It's true," he non-sings at the end of the track, clarifying that there is no complex metaphor at work. "I fell, and I hit my head.... I got a concussion." It might seem like a silly way for a veteran artist to start a record, but Folds sees some relevance in it.
"If you're taking a journey, as this record is, why not start on that foot—a song about making a big mistake?" he explains. "So the album starts with someone who's falling and publicly humiliating himself. And then, from that point, the listener can kind of question the author of this little story and all his decisions. I mean, if you're not paying attention, you could say, ‘God, this guy's an idiot for doing this and this and this.' But then again, he did tell you in the first song that he hit his head."
Oddly enough, if you don't remember "Hiroshima" being the first cut on Way to Normal, you're not necessarily wrong. Though the album got its official release on Epic in September, it's already had two other manifestations—a "fake" version that Folds intentionally leaked last summer as a joke, and a brand-new remixed and re-sequenced incarnation called Stems and Seeds, which includes a bonus disc from which fans can create their own remixes.
"Right now, we've got the luxury, because everything is so uncertain, of being fickle," Folds says. "I don't know if that's good or bad. But if I get a chance to make something slightly different or to revisit it while I still feel that I should—that's human nature. I'll do it. There's always been the myth of the artist that's so confident and in control that they don't revise at all. It comes out, they smoke a joint, they conk out, and that's it. But you can see that myth start to unravel when you look at something like Bob Dylan bootlegs. You start to see how the final product as it's perceived by the greater audience is not sacred to the artist himself. They're always ready to revise.... So the good thing with this is you can release these different, crazy things and allow them to fight it out in the greater consciousness. And then later on, if you're lucky, one of them might emerge as something that means something."
One track on Way to Normal that seems destined to stand the test of time is "You Don't Know Me," a danceable duet with Regina Spektor, and yet another in a long line of classic Ben Folds break-up songs.
"For me, [break-up songs] are actually more optimistic, because they're looking forward, implying new life," says Folds, who's been married four times. "You can't have the shadow without the light. And I think anyone can get on board with celebrating the past and looking forward. With a love song, people are so jaded that I think somewhere in your subconscious you're thinking, ‘Well, this isn't a good love song without knowing that it's going to break up.' At least, that's how I feel."