My definition of “old soul” differs slightly from the more common usage. To me, an old soul is someone who, musically or otherwise, grasps and is able to express the ethos of those who are a decade or more older. Any number of the tunes on Rockin’ the Suburbs make it plain Ben Folds is an old soul in my book.
Admittedly, since Folds is just 10 years younger than me, he likely better understands the retrospection that comes as we grow older. And that concept is one of the major reasons Rockin’ the Suburbs is the only release of this decade that is among my Desert Island Discs. Released on September 11, 2001, (unfortunate coincidence, that), it was his first solo release after the break up of the Ben Folds Five. Known for his piano skills — which someone I know once described as “heavy metal piano” — Folds actually also plays most of the instruments on Rockin’ the Suburbs.
Yet while Folds is an excellent musician, he is an even better songwriter. This release combines his seemingly irrepressible streak of wiseass with both introspection and sentiment. And while I love his smart ass attitude, what really speaks to me here are the reflective pieces. To a great extent, they explore the trials and joys of growing up, of reaching and even growing past middle age. Thus, for example, “Fred Jones, Pt. 2”, about a newspaper employee on his last day at work after 25 years, would be an excellent precursor to the opening scenes of the film About Schmidt released in late 2002.
There’s also the role of family. In “Still Fighting It,” Folds reflects on the parent-child relationship. He mentions the near earth shattering truth of the day “I picked you up and everything changed.” There’s also the message of how it “hurts” and “sucks” to grow up but everybody somehow manages to survive to some extent. Yet the lyric that finds the most resonance with me is in the chorus and that closes the song; “And you’re so much like me/I’m sorry.”
While Folds also covers the emotions of breakup, he balances it with an absolutely beautiful song that closes the CD (although there are editions that have a bonus track). “The Luckiest” touches on how coincidence or fate brings two people together. And, to some extent, it is an unusual love song. After all, how many love songs use the death of a man in his 90s and how his wife died to express that emotion? The song itself admits this is a “Strange way to tell you/That I know we belong.” But the first time I played the song for my wife, it had the same impact on her as it had on me.
In fact, “The Luckiest” competes with “The Ascent of Stan” for my favorite cut on the album. The latter tells of a “textbook hippie man” confronting the reality of where he is today compared to what he and his contemporaries dreamed of. “Once you wanted revolution/Now you’re the institution/How’s it feel to be the man?,” Folds asks as Stan wonders where the years went. Among the sobering realizations is “you wonder why your father was so resigned/Now you don’t wonder any more.” For me and many my age and a bit older, this in many ways encapsulates realities that sink in as we age.
Folds has long been extremely popular on college campuses. And when a guy with that kind of audience can still speak to old farts like me with his music, you’re fairly certain you’re dealing with an old soul.
And life barrels on like a runaway train
Where the passengers change
They don’t change anything
You get off; someone else can get on
“Fred Jones Pt. 2,” Ben Folds, Rockin’ the Suburbs