Ben Folds’ new album, So There, is essentially two albums in one. The first eight tracks are new material written in collaboration with yMusic, a New York-based chamber ensemble, and the last three tracks consist of Folds’ “Concerto For Piano and Orchestra.” The concerto, co-commissioned by the Nashville Ballet and the Minnesota Orchestra, was performed last year before being recorded for this album.
Many of the first eight tracks on the album can be characterized as cinematic and intriguing instrumentally, with a sadness underneath. The first song, “Capable Of Anything,” is cheerful on the surface, yet it is more an indictment of a past significant other than a motivational piece. The soaring orchestral melody, including fluttering flute lines, runs contrary to the bitterness of the lyrics. Later on, the track “Yes Man” follows the same formula, with beautiful string melodies obscuring a rather whiny, self-indulgent rumination beginning with the question: “Why didn’t you tell me that I got fat?” Even “Not A Fan,” the most gentle, delicately executed piece on the album, builds throughout the last minute to the line: “So f--- you.”
The title track of the album, “So There,” is the immature retort it sounds like. It’s jazzy and upbeat, but the lyrics “You taught me nothing/ I owe you nothing/ How could I forget you/ When there’s nothing to forget?” show the songs true intentions. “Long Way To Go” also has a jazzy feel, but delivers much more than “So There” in terms of substance. It has “Bennie and the Jets”-like plodding chords, the lurching feeling and even recorded yelling of a crowded bar anthem, mixed in with well-thought-out and carefully placed orchestral elements. At one point in the song, swells in the string melody combine with drawling voices to create a pretty accurate representation of swaying. Despite some out-of-place, military-sounding percussion toward the end, “Long Way To Go” is the most artful composition within the first eight tracks.
From the beginning, “Phone In A Pool” is a basic pop piano piece, topped off with a shaker constantly going in the background. Plucked strings add something unique, but in essence this is something we’ve heard before, with the harmonies in the chorus reminiscent of the laid-back, falsetto style of The Beach Boys. Although “Phone In A Pool” is quite light hearted and a little childish, the track “F10-D-A” is the epitome of childishness. As could be guessed from the name of the song, it begins as a simplistic recitation of notes that devolves into a vulgar series of innuendoes. The lyrics “Effed in the A/ Effed in the A with a D/ With a D/ With a big, fat D” could only be enjoyable to those stuck in a middle school mindset. At best a dirty music theory lesson, “F10-D-A” is undeniably the low point of the album.
The last of the eight new tracks, “I’m Not The Man,” is the most raw vocally, and most vulnerable song Folds gives us. It is one of the few pieces that doesn’t try to disguise its sadness, and in stark contrast to the silliness of “F10-D-A,” it seems Folds is being sincere, which makes it a deserving lead-in to the “Concerto For Piano and Orchestra.”
The concerto, broken into a separate track for each of the three movements, is the redeeming factor of So There. It is the full-out classical piece longed for throughout the pop teasers presented in the first eight tracks. Folds’ classical composing is creative and eclectic, bringing in many different styles and complicated rhythmic combinations. All three movements are generally upbeat, but have consistent dark undertones, like thundering percussion rising up from underneath piano and violin runs. Folds has succeeded in creating palatable classical music for those who usually prefer pop, and a more uplifting break for those of us who enjoy listening to more serious classical. The third movement closes with a comical strum of a harp and a percussive thump, reminding us of the common elements between the concerto and other tracks on the album: Folds’ flare for the dramatic and the whimsical.