There’s no way for me to be impartial when it comes to Ben Folds, and specifically his first solo album Rockin’ the Suburbs. Sorry if that makes me bourgeois or vanilla or uncool. Ben Folds Five was a huge deal for me finding a way through a lot of feelings of depression and anxiety during my 20s, and the way the songs on this album mirrored so many moments of my inner life was scary. It’s a huge musical touchpoint for my life, one I can’t listen to without getting emotional.
Some of it is the lyrics, and it’s a marvel how the emotional weight of something like “Still Fighting It” remains consistent even as the context changes. In 2001 it painful laid bare the problems I had with my father and his alcoholism; in 2019 it mirrors the intense fear I have of failing as a father to my son, of not making the same mistakes. Before it became a clichéd wedding tag “The Luckiest” piercingly captured a lot of the feelings I had for my wife, echoing the anxiety of always feeling I would never be good enough and yet despite all the stumbles we came together.
Saccharine to the nth degree, I know. I also know I don’t care.
Over the weekend I drove my family three hours north my in-laws house in the country, and as we played this album the question came up of manipulating feelings in music. We came to the conclusion that – regardless of how a feeling was manufactured, whether by use of a common chord progression or a melody or a lyric – if the response you feel is genuine, it really doesn’t matter. No one can listen to something in exactly the same way, and we each bring with us a lifetime of individual experiences that prime us to feel one way or another. You can lay claim that a particular piece of entertainment preys on that (for example, Disney’s current nostalgia re-canning factory) but if it moves you? Let it.
Other tracks, like the sublime 80s-tinged opener “Annie Waits” and the fragile sorrows of “Fred Jones, Pt.2” and “Carrying Cathy” work on me both ways – there are musical moments, transitions that sting with the sense of familiarity, and lyrical lines “Then one night she climbed into the picture frame / Out in the frozen air / and out of sight” that kill me each and every time. I love and live for those moments in music, and they happen more often than not with Folds’s music. Which isn’t to say there aren’t some clunkers on this: the title track is an automatic fast forward for me, and I can take or leave “The Ascent of Stan.”
But in the end what it comes down to is Rockin’ the Suburbs moves me. What you may think that says about is something I give no thought to.
And that’s as it should be.