Ben Folds has a bit of a problem.
Much like other artists with what I call can’t-sit-still-itis, Folds has been known to run the gambit of the various styles of pop music, borrowing liberally everything he needed from alternative rock, R&B, and some of the various points along that spectrum. This experimentation has spread both through his career both with the Ben Folds Five and his solo career.
But on his most recent album, “So There,” Folds experiments in a way that he hasn’t really previously. This time around, he brings in chamber music.
Folds adds the strings and horns of an orchestra to his typical style of mostly cheerful pop songs. Folds has always been known for a quirky sense of humor, and it’s a lot of fun to hear some serious orchestral pieces playing below the humor. The song “Yes Man” starts with a choir of Foldses asking the listener, “Why didn’t you tell me that I got fat?”
Another hilarious song is the one that comes immediately after it on the album, “F10-D-A.” The song is delightfully, yet subtly, vulgar. You’ll have to listen to it to figure out what I mean, but I guarantee this song will bring out your inner 12-year-old.
But this isn’t to say that Folds just cracks jokes on “So There.” On “Not a Fan,” he questions the entire nature of fan culture and the obsession that musicians and other artists bring out, and he sets the whole thing to a waltz.
Similarly, in “I’m Not the Man,” the last song on what I think of as the first part of the album (more on this in a moment), Folds laments about how he does not feel like the man that he used to be, and questions how he will be remembered. Backed by a heavy-handed piano and some almost funerary woodwinds, this song feels more like an epitaph than anything else.
But despite the seeming finality of this song, “So There” moves into its second part: a three-movement-long instrumental chamber piece. Entitled “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” the piece takes up the final 20 minutes or so of the album. I’m really of two minds about this part.
On the one hand, it’s beautiful music. I think Folds has created something with this concerto that could rival American greats like George Gershwin. At times, especially in the first movement, it’s incredibly dark; one can almost imagine a chase scene being choreographed to it. In other moments, it’s airy and romantic. And finally, in the third movement, it almost begins to sound like some frenetic, orchestral jazz. It’s beautiful, and I’m already on my fourth listen of this part alone as I write this.
On the other hand, the concerto doesn’t seem to make much sense on its own. The first half hour of the album was simply pop influenced by classical music, but the final part of the album breaks totally into American classical music. It’s a jarring transition, and I wonder if the concerto would have stood better on its own, especially since it comes after the song “I’m Not the Man,” a song that would be totally suitable as a finale to the album.
However, despite this one failing, Ben Folds achieves some amazing things on “So There.” I still stand by statement that Ben Folds has a problem, with his endless need to change. But as long as the listeners stand to benefit, I don’t see anything wrong with it.
I’m giving “So There” a 4 out of 5.
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