Those who dismissed word of Nick Hornby’s first foray into music as little more than a vanity project are in for a disappointment. Lonely Avenue, the English novelist’s first collaboration with American songwriter Ben Folds, is an unequivocal triumph. Intelligently written, its 11 tracks manage to move and amuse in equal doses with their tales of illness, lust, love, faith and political scandals, making for one of the singer-songwriter records of the year and an album, which is never short of engaging.
The discipline of the project was such — Hornby would look after the album’s lyrics while Folds would mine his musical imagination to breathe life into the High Fidelity novelist’s words. On the face of it, the duo may be unlikely collaborators, but closer inspection shows them nearer in thought than one might think. Indeed, were Hornby’s name not on the record sleeve, one could have easily mistaken the lyrics to be Folds own. Both write songs as short stories, and Hornby’s particular strength is being able to nail the emotion he hopes to convey in a simple line.
It’s on repeated listens that his characters really worm their way in — the mother of the terminal ill child marking New Year’s Eve on ‘Picture Window’; the suspicious boyfriend hacking into his lover’s e-mail account on the Elvis Costello-tinged ‘Password’; the birthday girl of recently divorced parents on the warm pop of ‘Claire’s Ninth’; the one-hit-wonder singer forced to play his classic about his ex ‘Belinda’ every night; and the portrait of Levi Johnson, the dude who got Sarah Palin’s daughter pregnant, on album standout ‘Levi Johnson’s Blues’.
Folds, as ever, is on scintillating form. He particularly shines on the aforementioned ‘Belinda’ and the rollicking Southern-style rippling piano of ‘Doc Pomus’, Hornby’s tribute to the great songwriter who refused to let his disability get in the way of penning classics for the likes of Elvis and Ray Charles.
Throughout, Lonely Avenue is packed with such vignettes, all thoughtfully worded and complimented by whistle-friendly melodies and lush, fluid arrangements. It’s a record which harks back to the classic songwriters of past with slices of Elton John, Spector, Costello, Young, Stevie Wonder, Springsteen, McCartney and Wilson all vying for space as evident influences on one of the year’s unexpected greats.