You know what hope is,
Hope is a bastard,
Hope is a liar, a cheater, a thief
Hope comes near you, kick its backside
Got no place in days like these
– from “Picture Window”
Music and lyrics are obviously the building blocks of popular music – but really how often are lyrics such a star of a project? After all, if the words weren’t sung – or rapped – there would be no real point to the exercise, no difference from conversation. Good lyrics are rewarded but poor lyrics are not punished to nearly the same degree. Basically, a good hook can save simpering lyrics, but a crappy display of musicianship will derail even Eliot-like verse. What is interesting about Lonely Avenue is that the lyrics are not just the star, but part of the entire raison d’etre. We have a singer-songwriter Ben Folds, turning over half of his songwriting process to Nick Hornby – the famed writer whose work has kept Folds company on his many travels and who has been gushed over at length in this section of cyberspace before (and undoubtedly will again). What we have here is a bit of a “two-rooms” Elton John-Bernie Taupin sort of songwriting experiment, not just an experiment in lyrics being turned into music, but Nick Hornby showing us whether he can write any kind of verse worth treasuring (at least as song lyrics).
What we get as a result is a very cheeky album that manages to embody both the virtues of Folds and Hornby. The songs have the richness musically that we expect from Folds while the lyrics do have the feel of short stories and vignettes. There is a literary depth to what is being sung – but what Hornby is able to do is to do it in a way that it never feels like Ben is singing in someone else’s voice. For instance, “A Working Day”, with its quirky, spacey beat (sort of a sci-fi “Nerdist” sort of vibe) with the sort of turn of phrase lyrics like “Some guy on the net thinks I suck, well he should know/He’s got a guitar” sounds like something Ben would write. The lyrics and funny, but Hornby’s ear for voice is the surprise.
The songs in the album mirror the arc of Hornby’s best work, whether it be High Fidelity or A Long Way Down where modern politics, funny insights and pathos and depth and manchildren are alternated with multidimensional deftness. We have a speculation of Levi Johnston’s life (“Levi Johnston’s Blues”) and a love song and crush based on the flimsiest of pretexts (though absolutely correct: Saskia Hamilton is a great name) to provide great humor. But it is coupled with a couple of the more poignant songs. In particular “Belinda” works as a story of a singer who has to sing his one big hit over and over again, though the subject of the song has left long ago. “Belinda, I love you/I’m sorry that I left you/I met somebody younger on a plane …” – the manufacturing of “ripped from your heart” emotion a performer needs is placed into sharp relief. Similarly, the album’s poppiest song “From Above”, speaks of empahy and a world ultimately comprised of coincidences, touching stuff that was even ruminated over in the movie Red. For a song with a good hook, it provides a lot. These are all “story songs” in a sense, though that evokes those insipid Harry Chapin songs of yore – but of course Harry Chapin was not a professional story writer.