"Let me tell you all what it's like/Being male, middle class, and white/It's a bitch/If you don't believe it/listen up to my new CD," Ben Folds sings in the title tune of Rockin' the Suburbs, his first album without the Ben Folds Five, the trio he fronted for most of the '90s. And while Folds certainly fits the "male, middle class, and white" part, the angst displayed here is pretty much alien to Folds, an amiable pop songwriter and performer with Broadway-bound melodies and goodwill toward his fellow man. The song ends with Folds doing a fierce imitation of Zack de la Rocha, raging against the suburban machine and letting loose with a loud "fuck!" It's a funny moment and possibly the best song on an album dripping with unconcealed sentimentality.
"Annie Waits," "Zak and Sara," "Fred Jones Part 2," "The Ascent of Stan," "Losing Lisa," and "Carrying Cathy" are all titles and characters populating Folds's Suburbs. These are studies of individuals not unlike Folds himself -- a bit lost, but OK as far as the big things in life go. They're scared of growing up, stuck in nowhere jobs, and living day to day, hoping for a break. The songs are detailed, pretty, and droll ("Sara, spelled without an H, was getting bored," he says of one of the denizens). But the melancholia eventually gives way to sappiness, the erstwhile smartass dulled by maturity. At least the songs themselves, buried beneath Folds's grand piano gestures and even grander hooks, bounce along with some joy, unlike the Five's final outing, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Suburbs returns to the spiritedness that made the Five's 1995 self-titled debut and its follow-up, 1997's Whatever and Ever Amen, such easy listening (even if this album's big ballad, "Carrying Cathy," details a suicide). Too bad Rockin' the Suburbs gets a little too close to Easy Listening.