Today on the Book Case, we're featuring a post by music writer—and Nick Hornby reader—Carla Jean Whitley, who gave the new album from Hornby and Nashville musician Ben Folds a spin. How do the lyrics of Lonely Avenue compare to Hornby's novels and short stories? Find out.
Nick Hornby has practically made a career of being a music fan. Though he’s written a number of novels and books of essays, the success of High Fidelity (and its mark as required reading in the libraries of most 20- and 30-something men) cast him as the listener, the man who takes as much comfort in his CD collection (or vinyl, or mp3—whatever it is you listen to these days) as he does in anything else. Last year’s Juliet, Naked only solidified Hornby’s reputation as a writer who loves to write about music.
But last month, Hornby also stepped into the limelight as a writer who also writes for music. On Sept. 28, Ben Folds’ Lonely Avenue, for which Hornby wrote the lyrics, was released by Nonesuch Records.
It’s an interesting twist of fate for a novelist who once wrote, upon hearing the soundtrack to the film adaptation of his book About a Boy, “Seeing one’s words converted into Hollywood cash is gratifying in all sorts of ways, but it really cannot compare to the experience of hearing them converted into music: for someone who has to write books because he cannot write songs, the idea that a book might somehow produce a song is embarrassingly thrilling.”
Better yet, an essay earlier in the book from which that line was taken—Songbook, a collection of 31 essays about songs—centered on a Ben Folds song.
Hornby analyzed “Smoke,” declaring Folds “a proper songwriter, although he doesn’t seem to get much credit for it, possibly because rock critics are less impressed by sophisticated simplicity than by sub-Dylanesque obfuscation: his words wouldn’t look so good written down, but he has range.” Now, Hornby has become precisely that kind of lyricist.
Even in this shorter form of writing, Hornby exhibits the same wit, sarcasm and character development as in his novels. And just as in his fiction, the characters aren’t always likable at first glance. But Hornby provides a glimpse into each person’s motivation and character. In the opening track, “A Working Day,” the narrator vacillates from being his own biggest fan to his own worst critic, neatly capturing the artist’s struggle.
“Levi Johnston’s Blues,” the chorus of which was inspired by Bristol Palin’s now-ex-boyfriend’s Facebook profile, is the story of an 18-year-old boy who finds himself surrounded by the paparazzi and sorting through what matters to him after impregnating the vice presidential candidate’s daughter. It’s a tale we’ve heard plenty of over the past several years, but Hornby’s lyrics offer insight into what Johnston may have thought as he faced both the media and fatherhood.
From start to finish, the songs on Lonely Avenue are often every bit as quotable and sarcastic—and with Folds’ music, even more infectious—as Hornby’s literary work.