“It has its own voice, which comes from some place between the two of us,” says author, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and now lyricist Nick Hornby of Lonely Avenue, his unique, words-and-music collaboration with Ben Folds. Singer-songwriter-pianist Folds puts it more bluntly: “I felt like I’d found something rare on Ebay or something. Nick should have done it before but it’s his first big effort and I feel like I really scored here.”
Hornby first attracted the attention of music fans – and artists like Folds – with his brilliant, bittersweet 1995 novel High Fidelity, about an obsessive record collector's crumbling personal life that was translated into a cult classic film starring John Cusack and even a stage musical. Hornby has been an admirer since attending Folds' first UK shows. In fact, Hornby devoted an entire essay in his 2002 collection of music-themed short pieces, 31 Songs, to Folds, praising the "sophisticated simplicity" of Folds' writing.
The London-based Hornby supplied the words for Lonely Avenue, a project sparked by the long-distance friendship that developed after Hornby published 31 Songs. Nashville resident Folds then set Hornby's lyrics to music in the vintage, orchestra-sized studio he'd rescued from oblivion and has been working in for the last ten years. The hero of High Fidelity would have approved: Folds conceived the album as a vinyl release and recorded everything live in analogue to two-inch tape, finally mastering the disc at Abbey Road.
Joining Folds in the studio at various points were his own band, a string section, and legendary arranger Paul Buckmaster, who, as Folds describes him, is "The person who makes you feel the goose bumps at the chorus and you don't know why." [Those are Buckmaster's string charts, for example, on Elton John's ‘Tiny Dancer’ and The Rolling Stones' ‘Moonlight Mile’.]
Lonely Avenue offers equal measures of humour and pathos in often deceptively cheerful songs. Folds literally gives voice to Hornby's endearingly mixed up, lovelorn characters, who come across as sympathetic even at their most hapless. An aging pop singer has to endlessly and agonizingly reprise his one hit, a paean to a woman he left years ago, to the fans who still attend his shows (‘Belinda’). A mother deliberately avoids a stunning view of New Years Eve fireworks as she ministers to her seriously ill child in a London hospital (‘Picture Window’). Hornby reconstructs the world of crippled, Brill Building-era songwriter Doc Pomus circa 1962 (‘Doc Pomus’), and imagines, with unexpected tenderness, the moment when Alaskan teenager Levi Johnston discovered he'd impregnated the newly announced vice-presidential candidate's daughter, Bristol Palin (‘Levi Johnston's Blues’).
The result is an 11-song set that's as playful as it is soul-stirring, and more than a little magical. Says Folds, "With some albums the comet goes by and you grab it while it's passing and everything you do has some comet dust on it. This is one of those albums."