There's hardly a subject that escapes Ben Folds' wit. From style faux pas ("For Those of Y'all Who Wear Fannie Packs") to apathetic scenesters ("Battle of Who Could Care Less"), Folds produces all manner of self-deprecation, sardonic observation, and irreverence, stretching from "Your Redneck Past" to his cover of Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit."
Folds tacitly acknowledges that piano's not as cool as guitar, counting on his geeky charm and goofball willingness to burst preconceptions. (How else would you characterize a pasty, bespectacled pianist somberly crooning, "Bitches ain't shit but hos and tricks / Lick on these nuts and suck the dick"?) His humor makes the more earnest, heartfelt moments that much more convincing, much like Nirvana's quieter moments made the loud ones louder. (Self-serious misanthropes like Dashboard Confessional's Chris Carraba would do well to learn this trick.)
Folds balances his satirical sensibility with keenly sketched character studies. But it's easy to miss the jokes for the malevolence.
Ben Folds is scheduled to perform Monday, July 18, at Marquee Theatre in Tempe.
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Case in point is the song "Bitch Went Nuts" from 2008's Way to Normal, which has prompted some listeners to view Folds as misogynistic and to argue that the fact he's been divorced three times further illustrates this. The problem is the conflation of character and artist. While nobody expects actor Anthony Hopkins to flay and eat you, à la Hannibal Lecter, musicians rarely get that benefit of the doubt.
The song opens with words of wisdom from some sort of Zen master, explaining that if you ask a woman why a relationship failed, they'll give a variety of answers (one example: "Man is douche, and is now free to make love to himself") but men will offer but one: "Bitch went nuts." It's not one of his best-crafted songs, and the verbiage makes it easy to take things the wrong way. But the core of the issue lies in what passes for the chorus, with the befuddled query: "Why do they all go?" At its core, it's a song less about name-calling (though there's certainly a fair amount of that) and more about men's difficulty understanding women.
A version of the song included on the Way to Normal Fake Leak, a collection of jokey toss-offs "leaked" by Folds before the official album was released, actually serves to clear matters up some. "Bitch Went Nutz" features a Republican lawyer trying to make partner who mistakenly takes his liberal girlfriend to an office party and gives her a line of coke, prompting her to let her true colors show: "She called us bigots with her fist in the air / And as she did they all could see all her armpit hair." In the process, his knack for skewering both sexes comes across. "I hoped one day to mold you into the perfect wife," he sings. "Couldn't you have just nodded and smiled from nine to twelve?"
Sadly, the song's muddled reception may reflect the difficulty the 44-year-old singer has had growing older, and why Lonely Avenue, his latest album and collaboration with author Nick Hornby, featured tender songs like "Picture Window" alongside knee-slappers like "Levi Johnston's Blues." Puckish nerdy bravado can easily grow shrill and petulant as one ages and the boyish charm fades. It's probably the same reason Elton John doesn't wear that duck costume anymore.