wordsmiths

Two first impressions…

I’m not a fan of either Ben Folds or Nick Hornby – Folds I know of mostly from my daughter, who had a brief flirtation with his music.

I have owned collections of Hornby’s non-fiction on the subjects of music and books, but have never read the fiction that made him famous.

But I couldn’t resist Lonely Avenue, an attempt to wed Hornby’s words with Folds’ music.

Such experiments almost never work in popular music; though some lyrics are ‘poetic,’ the opposite doesn’t hold – poetry makes for lousy song writing, probably because a poem is conceived of as a whole thing, by itself. The music seems stapled on.

So the best you can usually hope for is two trains on parallel tracks – Kerouac reads his prosody while Steve Martin plays jazz behind him, Lou Reed declaims “Street Hassle,” Laurie Anderson laments and inquires of United States. (In fairness, Anderson produced one sublime mix of fancy words and music on Mister Heartbreak.)

Patti Smith had a better track record,  but she got there partly by bowing to the native form of rock and roll lyrics. Her “Gloria” gets its strength from the headlong rush of her poetry into the song itself, and our knowledge of where things are going. “Gloria” is an amazing expansion of the original, but you only get that after you’ve heard the whole thing and been punched by the familiar refrain.

Dylan collaborated with a playwright, Jacques Levy, and produced an outstanding album in Desire, but I take that as more proof of my argument – Levy was a public writer, whose words first and foremost had to function coming out of peoples’ mouths.

And here’s another reason not to be optimistic about the Folds-Hornby team: it’s billed as “Ben Folds adds music and melody to Nick Hornby’s words.” In other words, the tale is wagging the dog. (Sorry.)

So how is it? Pretty good, actually. Folds comes up with some gorgeous melodies, and though the words are often an awkward fit, there’s at least an honest attempt to put the two together and make one better thing. The slow stuff works best – I like “Picture Window,” “Claire’s Ninth,” “From Above” and “Belinda,” for starters. That’s a decent first impression.

I think most of it is Folds, but give Hornby his due. He delivers lyrics as good as “It’s so easy from above/you can really see it all/People who belong together/lost and sad and small/But there’s nothing to be done for them/It doesn’t work that way/Sure, we all have soul mates/But we walk past them every day.” That it works better with music is a compliment; it means he’s part of a team that’s writing – flawed and imperfect, but interesting – songs.

***

People who love to read about music loved Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise, his account of (primarily) classical music in the 20th century. For whatever reason, I’m not able to stay with the book. (I suspect it’s mostly my unfamiliarity with much of the subject matter, coupled with a lifelong distaste for serialism.)

No such problem with Listen To This, a collection of Ross’s New Yorker pieces over the last decade. Maybe I haven’t read Noise carefully enough, but the new book seems more personal, less formal, which are good counter-weights to Ross’s formidable knowledge. Early on, the thing I enjoy most is how Ross connects popular and classical music. In his fine essay on Bob Dylan, Ross likens “Simple Twist of Fate” to a Shubert string quartet and an aria by Purcell. The comparisons don’t seem forced because Ross makes the connection specific, almost technical – he’s not trying the ‘elevate’ Dylan, he’s trying to show how the wheels turn in two worlds (classical and pop/folk) in the same way.

And he delivers what may be the best summation of Dylan’s strange career: “Stubborn persistence is his main characteristic: although he has often vanished in a funk, he never fails to trudge back with some new twist on his obsessions.” Ross is a critic, not a musician, but lines like that have perfect pitch.

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