I had a conversation once with my old boss, Brandon Bond, about Ben Folds. A fellow songwriter in his own right (and a good one), Brandon and I would often discuss the craft. That day, we were trying to figure out exactly why we liked Ben Folds. We both agreed it wasn’t the lyrics because, frankly, his lyrics aren’t that good. Now, before you Ben Folds fanatics (of which I am one) get out your pitchforks and come knocking on my apartment door to dispense your angry mob justice, I invite you to re-read the title of my blog. It says, “Songwriting Spank Material,” and this episode is about Ben Folds. Truly I’m not trying to suggest Ben Folds is a horrible lyricist. I actually think he is a good lyricist…just not a great lyricist. He doesn’t, and probably never will, hold court with Dylan, Cohen, Simon, or anyone else who is a master at crafting quality lyrics. Brandon and I also agreed that, while Folds’ piano playing is among some of the best in the business, it wasn’t his musicianship alone that we liked. We just couldn’t figure it out. As our conversation came to an end, Brandon eventually hit the nail on the head and figured out why Ben Folds is a great songwriter, summing it up nicely if you asked me. I’ll get to that in a minute.
You might think, after reading all these Spank Material segments, I think good lyrics are the only thing that makes for good songwriting, and you’d be partially correct. I do think good lyrics and good songwriting are synonymous. In my own work, lyrics are the thing I take the most pride in. When I listen to songs, lyrics are the first thing I hear. The songwriters I revere, for the most part, are quality lyricists. I LOVE LYRICS…but I don’t think you necessarily need to be a great lyricist to be a great songwriter. For example (and I’m probably going to get destroyed for this because it borders on blasphemy), in my opinion Lennon/McCartney were not great lyricists. THEY WERE GOOD! NOT GREAT! GOOD NOT GREAT! PLEASE GOD DON’T STRIKE ME DOWN! Seriously though, while I don’t think Lennon/McCartney were great lyricists, I do think they were great songwriters. This is because they supported their lyrics with excellent musical arrangements, stellar lead vocals and vocal harmonies, and they really knew how to utilize a hook (especially McCartney). Ben Folds is similar to the Beatles in this respect. His arrangements are amazing, utilizing every bit of his immense musical and production talents. His vocals are always beautiful, and he has one of the best falsettos in the business. And finally, he baits his fair share of hooks in so many of his songs. After being compared to the Beatles in this way, it’s easy to see why Ben Folds is a great songwriter, but I really think there is one more level to his songwriter that makes him great, and it’s the nail that Brandon Bond hit on the head.
Back to my conversation with Brandon. We were standing there. We were getting ready to wrap up our discussion of Ben Folds, and we hadn’t figured out why exactly we liked him so much. There was something we couldn’t quite put our finger on. Then Brandon says, “You know why I like him? He can make a bad lyric sound good.” I stood there, thinking for a minute, and decided this was Ben Folds’ genius. Indeed, Brandon was right. Ben Folds has a tremendous knack for taking lyrics that really aren’t that great and selling them to us like they’re an ointment that will cure all of our ills. Lines like, “…and check out the reflections in my eyes […],” “You were not the same after that,” and “I’m sorry, Mr. Jones, it’s time” would fail in anyone else’s hands, but when Ben Folds sings these lines you feel like you’re hearing some of the best lines ever conjured. With him, it’s all about his delivery, his phrasing, the way he accentuates the syllables with the percussion of the piano, softens them when they need to be soften, blows us away with them when the moment is right. He anticipates the mood of the song better than anyone, and we are taken there with him. Ben Folds is a used car salesman, and we buy the car from him every time, and this is why he is a great songwriter. Brandon Bond was right.
For my Spank Material tonight, I go with a pretty obvious choice, if you’re a Folds fanatic. I could have gone with any of the following and picked a great one – “Annie Waits,” "Gone," “Still FightingIt,” “Zak and Sara,” “Not The Same,” “The Ascent of Stan,” “Army,” “Philosophy,” or “Jesusland.” The one I went with his a sentimental favorite, as I’m sure it is for a lot of people. Anyone who has a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife, and knows this song says the same thing – “This is our song.” I love this song because it is painfully honest, and I respect that about songs. I love it because Folds doesn’t try to do too much vocally. He keeps it pure and sweet. But mostly, like I said in the previous blog, I am a sucker for songs that feature a piano that meanders. Here is “The Luckiest” by Ben Folds.