Byline: David Smyth
THE unlikely collaboration between London novelist Nick Hornby and pianist Ben Folds from North Carolina began with admiration from afar. Folds used to read Hornby's books, such as High Fidelity and About a Boy, when on tour. Then, in 2002, Hornby published an essay collection, 31 Songs, in which he enthused at length about some of his favourite music.
Smoke, a lush break-up song by Folds's goofily named former trio, Ben Folds Five, was in there alongside Bruce Springsteen's Thunder Road and Led Zeppelin's Heartbreaker. Hornby wrote of Folds's song: "His words wouldn't look so good written down, but he has range, an amused eye for lovestruck detail, and he makes jokes -- but not in the choruses, crucially, because he knows that the best way to wreck a joke is to repeat it seven times in three minutes." He went on to call the song "lyrically perfect".
This prompted Folds to get in touch and confess that, in fact, he hadn't written those particular lyrics. So began a friendship that has slowly become a working relationship. The pair wrote the track That's Me Trying for another strange Folds project, a 2004 album by Star Trek's William Shatner.
Now they're going steady, about to release Lonely Avenue, a full album of songs featuring Hornby's lyrics and Folds's music. They fit beautifully together, in part because Hornby leaves the singing to the expert.
Its rare to find a dedicated lyricist today, when rock bands get black marks unless they do everything themselves, and even the most plastic pop stars insist that they "co-write" all their songs. We're more familiar with lyricists in the world of musicals -- such as Tim Rice or Ira Gershwin -- while Elton John's wordsmith, Bernie Taupin, is probably the best known in contemporary music. Then there's Doc Pomus, the bearded, wheelchairbound writer of the words to Sixties hits such as Sweets for My Sweet and Viva Las Vegas, whose tale Hornby tells on a song named after him: "He was mad as hell, frightened and bitter/And found a way to make his feelings pay".
So if someone is able to concentrate solely on the lyrics, will the end product be more impressive? Hornby's name on the album sleeve certainly makes us listen more closely to the lines that Folds sings. …