Ever since he made waves across the alternative rock scene as the leader of Ben Folds Five twenty years ago, North Carolina pianist Ben Folds has reigned as one of the best American singer/songwriters of his generation. Often considered the modern successor to Elton John and Billy Joel, as well as the male counterpart to the equally astonishing Tori Amos, Folds has remained beloved throughout his career because he never fails to fuse impressive musicianship, heartrending vocals, and irresistible melodies into timeless gems.
In other words, no one does it like Folds, and on his latest album, So There, he continues to exude modestly reflective and humorous excellence. It’s certainly not his best album to date, but it doesn’t disappoint either, and the heightened focus on orchestral accompaniment (both grandiose and restrained) helps So There stand out from its predecessors.
Actually, the addition of classical musicians is what truly separates this record from Folds’ other collections. Its first eight songs (which, to be honest, is really the proper new album) were recorded in collaboration with chamber sextet yMusic, while its final three tracks make up Folds’ ambitious “Concerto For Piano and Orchestra”, which he wrote in 2013, alongside the Nashville Symphony and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero.
Of the effort, Folds says that it materialized after he realized, “I can write pop songs for what’s in essence a small orchestra.” He’s also quick to suggest that this approach isn’t the first time he’s deviated from the norm, noting that Ben Folds Five’s third LP, 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, “sounds a lot like the concerto” if you “knocked the vocals off . . . and [strung] together all the instrumental parts.” Furthermore, the 21-minute “Concerto” was actually the starting point for So There; he knew that it “felt alive” but that it also wouldn’t provide enough new material for a whole album, so he enlisted yMusic (whom he calls his “[telepathic] brothers and sisters”) to flesh out more customary entries. The result is an admittedly disjointed effort, with two [potentially] separate audiences in mind; fortunately, though, both halves of So There are quite enjoyable, so there’s still plenty to celebrate.
With its downtrodden yet polite and catchy melodies, touching lyrics, and sophisticated arrangements, “Capable of Anything” is not only a stunning way to begin So There, but it’s also the best of the eight standards. As usual, Fold sings with charming, almost boyish shyness, delivering sentiments like “What is this? / It doesn’t make much sense” and “Swung and missed / I put my heart in this” with the air of a bittersweet everyman. Likewise, his chorus is endearingly hopeful and honest. Of course, yMusic does a fantastic job supporting him, with piercing strings, flourishes of flutes, bursts of horns, and quick percussion dancing around his harmonies and chords. Their impressionistic tendencies and backing vocals elevate Folds’ core composition greatly, proving to be a wonderful complement throughout the track. Really, “Capable of Anything” may be remembered as one of his best songs, period.
In contrast, “Not a Fan” is sparser and more forlorn, finding Folds commenting on pop culture fanaticism (“A boy band with glasses / just minus the heart”); however, it’s also a bit meta, as the line “I’m starting to wonder what you see in me / No, I’m not a fan, but maybe I could learn to be” exemplifies Folds’ penchant for self-deprecation. In typical Folds fashion, he undermines its majorly sorrowful elegance near the end with blunt humor, whispering, “So fuck you, and your friends” as the final notes soar. It’s subtle but hilarious juxtapositions like this that make Folds such a unique artist.
Elsewhere, fanciful playing and vibrant instrumentation improve upon the relatively ordinary songwriting in “So There” and “Long Way to Go”. The latter is superior to the former, and both are still really good selections, but they’d be much less memorable without the layers yMusic brings to them. As for “Phone in the Pool,” it’s straightforward and simple, yet still catchy and grounded, with a slightly tongue-in-cheek chorus (“I’ve thrown my phone in a pool In New Orleans / Found the love of my life again / Y’all knows what I means / And I’ll be back on your sofa in a puddle in a couple of weeks”) providing the relatable sing-a-long essence fans look for. yMusic also provides vocals near the end, which is an interesting and refreshing way to showcase their singing skills, as well as Folds’ egoless nature.
“Yes Man” is another distressed ballad in which Folds piano and falsetto harmonies take center stage; in fact, he stacks his vocals more than usual here, and it really works well. Naturally, he also throws a funny quip or two (such as “Why didn’t you tell me that I got fat? / Now I’m crying all the way from the photoman / Cause I see I got more chins than A Chinese phonebook has”) in-between the more heartfelt bits of nostalgia. Along the same lines, album closer “I’m Not the Man” is easily the most touching song on So There, with yMusic provided delicate accompaniment, both musically and vocally, to Folds’ piercing realizations of all the things he “used to be.” It’s poetic and profound, allowing its sonic thinness to speak volumes.
Arguably the only misstep of these first eight pieces is “F10-D-A,” a childish and vulgar interlude in which Folds and yMusic go back and forth with various notes while singing, “Effed in the A / Effed in the A / With a D / With a D / With a big, fat D / See what it’s like to be flat”. It’s certainly creative, interesting, and funny enough the first few times you hear it, but there isn’t much substance afterward, and it becomes a bit repetitive and uninspired once the initial allure wears off. Without a doubt, one of Folds’ best attributes is his outlandish sense of humor, so the problem isn’t that the song is sexually explicit; it’s that it’s not much of a song. After all, he basically made the same joke in “Effington” (from Way to Normal), and that, like “The Bitch Went Nuts”, “Song for the Dumped”, and “Rockin’ the Suburbs”, used adult humor as a tool to benefit the songwriting, not substitute it.
As for the three-part “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”, it’s inherently polarizing, as listeners who aren’t into the style will be disinterested by default. That said, it’s still very fascinating and striving in parts, with its first movement residing as its best. It weaves between bombastic moments of panic and serene, romantic interludes seamlessly, evoking Danny Elfman’s fondness for dramatic vibrancy at times (in comparison, the second and third movements are much quieter and less eventful). Because his songwriting is so strong, Folds’ talent as a virtuosic pianist is often underappreciated, so it’s invigorating and justified for that side of him to take the spotlight. Even so, many fans will probably wish that “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” was released separately so that more songs were included.
Sadly, it’s precisely this dichotomy that makes So There suffer from an identity crisis. Sure, “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” is a masterful composition that demonstrates just diverse and talented Ben Folds is, but at the same time So There is supposed to be the next proper Folds solo record, yet only two-thirds of its sequence fulfills that expectation. Furthermore, there are only a couple truly great songs here, so the aforementioned first section doesn’t rival much of his prior output. All things considered, though, So There still packs plenty of strong melodies, lyrics, and vocals, and the wise contributions yMusic scatters throughout the duration are impeccable. If nothing else, So There shows how confident Folds is at trying new things and taking his audience somewhere new, and isn’t that the truest purpose of art?