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Lyrical Genius, Part II – Ben Folds

It’s a shame, but it seems to me that a lot of songwriters don’t really work as hard on their lyrics as they do their music. Granted, there are exceptions, but so much of – particularly popular – music is made up of utter dreck, lyrically speaking. (Of course, a lot of the music blows, too.)

Even most of the words that are well-written are pretty lacking; they don’t really mean anything.

So I present the second in a series on songwriters that I feel deserve mention for the profundity that they display in their lyrical output. Enjoy!


Ben Folds is considerably more well-known than my previous entry; he’s had several songs hit on the radio (“Brick” was a pretty major hit) so you’ve probably heard of him, even if you never heard of Kevin Gilbert. But perhaps in all the upbeat, rockin’ piano jammin’, you never noticed what an incredible storyteller he is? The aforementioned “Brick” is a very good example; a (fictional?) story about a couple of teenagers who go to the women’s clinic the day after Christmas is not actually a pro- or con- argument for abortion, it’s instead a powerful statement on loneliness, “status quo” relationships, and honesty, among other things. And it’s told in the context of a story so simply told – few words, but words well chosen – that one can hardly have trouble identifying with the “character” in the song.

It’s a skill that Ben has in spades. Another very good story told, from the “Ben Folds Five” album, is “Boxing.” It’s a story about a boxer who’s well past his prime, yet still boxing because it’s all he knows. It’s sung to his manager, Howard, and the most goosebump-raising line is at the tail end of each chorus:

Boxing’s been good to me Howard
But now I’m told, I’m growing old
The whole time you knew, in a couple of years I’d be through
Has boxing been good to you?

Damn, that gives me chills just typing it.

Then there’s the amazing “Fred Jones Part II” from “Rocking the Suburbs”:

Fred sits alone at his desk in the dark
There’s an awkward young shadow that waits in the hall
He’s cleared all his things and he’s put them in boxes
Things that remind him: ‘Life has been good’
Twenty-five years
He’s worked at the paper
A man’s here to take him downstairs
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones
It’s time
There was no party, there were no songs
‘Cause today’s just a day like the day that he started
No one is left here that knows his first name
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
And I’m sorry, Mr. Jones
It’s time

An incredible story, told incredibly simply. You relate, you understand – it’s an amazing skill, and one that I hope to develop in my own songwriting.

To steal Kevin Gilbert’s phrase: To be simple, yet profound.

I’ll close with lyrics from “The Luckiest” – an amazing (perhaps a little sappy) song that my wife and I made “our song” at our wedding and for always. It has the amazing distinction of this great moment: When we played it for my Mom (who we lost in April) the first words out of her mouth after she heard it for the first time were, “You know you have to play that at your wedding, right?” (This was before we were even engaged.) Amazing song, amazing lyrics: Note – I typed from memory, prose-style, so the line spacing may not be as Ben Folds originally wrote ’em.)

The Luckiest (from “Rockin’ the Suburbs”)

I don’t get many things right the first time
In fact, I am told that a lot.
Now I know: all the wrong turns and stumbles and falls
Brought me here.
And where was I before the day
That I first saw your lovely face?
Now I see it every day.
And I know that I am the luckiest.

What if I’d been born fifty years before you
In a house on a street where you lived?
Maybe I’d be outside as you passed on your bike…
Would I know?
And in a white sea of eyes, I’d see one pair
That I recognize
And I know that I am the luckiest.

I love you more than I can ever find a way to say to you.

Next door there’s an old man
Who lived to his nineties
And one day, passed away in his sleep
And his wife, she stayed for
A couple of days and passed away
I’m sorry, I know that’s a strange way to tell you
That I know we belong…
And I know, that I am the luckiest

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