The Writer and the Musician – Review by Vijay Khurana
Nick Hornby loves pop music. This we know. From his record store-owning High Fidelity protagonist Rob, to 31 Songs, his collection of essays about his emotional relationships with his favourite tunes, he’s a writer who often writes about pop. But can he make it himself?
Lonely Avenue is a collaboration between Hornby and US musician Ben Folds. Now, before you get giddy and imagine that Nick Hornby has “Done a Joaquin Phoenix” and given up his word processor for a synthesiser and a drum machine, I should tell you his contribution is strictly a literary one: It’s lyrics by Hornby, music by Folds, and performance by Folds and his band.
This idea of a novelist and a musician collaborating is a fascinating one (just imagine some of JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth songs set to music by Kanye West. “Old Tom Bombadil / is a merry fellow…” YES!) In this case, the two artists in question seem to be very well suited to one another, and have spoken in the past about being fans of one another’s work. Hornby brings his greatest strengths to the new format, especially his humour and effortless ability to create memorable characters. And the album is full of characters, both real and imagined.
“Levi Johnston’s Blues” is about the ex-fiancée of former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol. Johnston found himself suddenly and violently thrust into the media spotlight during the last presidential campaign, and the song is an imagining of the voice he was denied during the furore of the time.
“Password” is a betrayal song, focusing on a suspicious boyfriend trying to hack into his girlfriend’s email account. The unravelling of the plot is clever, and the emotion of the story is deliberately undermined by the ridiculous spelling-out of various words the protagonist is trying as possible passwords.
“Saskia Hamilton”, a love song from a writing student to the American poet, hints at another level in the collaboration between Hornby and Folds: the possibility that Hornby plays little jokes on Folds by giving him a certain first person voice to perform. In this case, Folds is lumped with a lot of bad student poetry, including having to rhyme “Saskia” with “Shakespeare”.
What’s most impressive about these Hornby lyrics is his ability to create memorable characters and humorous or tragic situations in such a drastically shorter format than what he’s used to. This challenge has an echo in Folds’ subsequent task of fitting Hornby’s words into the rhythm and structure of the music. As Folds said to triple j’s Zan Rowe in a recent interview:
“There are times when you have to cram in words in order to make this work, but I find that just adds to the tension of the moment… This is the moment where the narrator of the song has more to say and less time to say it in – that’s the way life works.” (Listen to Zan Rowe’s interview with Ben Folds).
Liking Lonely Avenue will depend a lot on your affection or otherwise for Folds’ music. If you like it as I do, you will get a lot out of these quirky, playful and surprisingly emotional stories.
Vijay Khurana is broadcaster at Triple J with an interest in books, crosswords and radio. This review is cross posted from the Bookshow Blog.