Anyone familiar with the music of US singer-songwriter Benjamin Scott Folds will greet news of his latest album – eight tracks of classically infused pop alongside a three-movement symphony – with only a small portion of surprise.
In a career that’s so far spanned a cappella, guitarless indie rock, gangsta rap, movie soundtracks and literary experiment, among much else, an album informed by orchestral ambition is just what you’d expect.
In many ways So There is typical of North Carolina-born Ben's canon. It has a hefty dose of his prolific, pretty and unique blend of bittersweet balladry. In most other ways it's simply grander than anything he's attempted before. These eight songs and a symphony scale creative heights not often seen in a music industry obsessed with hooks, beats and breaks. Not since Sufjan Stevens's 2005 opus Illinoise, has this writer heard anything that so easily bridges the gap between easy listening ear candy and luscious orchestration.
The first few seconds of album opener Capable of Anything draw you in like a tractor beam powered by nerds. Musicians shuffle in their chairs, some chat among themselves, then a bass drum rattles while a flute flutters like a sweet anticipatory bird, before Ben Folds, possessed of the most recognisable voice in modern popular music, gets to the refrain: "We're told we are capable of anything but you don't seem to think that you are ... capable of anything." It's as pulse-quickening and instantly arresting as only great music can be. Recorded with New York classical sextet yMusic, this track, like the seven following it, is deeply driven by a spirit of immediacy and improvisation. But these are not mere jams bashed out in an afternoon – Folds has long had a reputation for meticulousness, repeatedly evidenced by his vocal placement and note-perfect storytelling throughout So There.
Not a Fan is one such tale, with its pointed piano motif that initially seems a mountain of sadness for the listener to overcome. That's until you realise it details the fallout, self doubt and bitterness that inevitably arises from accompanying his "cultured" partner to a boy-band concert. Ben sings: "I'm not a fan of you and your friends. You're so well-read, I grew up on sugar cereal and TV, I'm starting to wonder what you see in me." Then the whole thing neatly concludes with the merest hint of profanity. As ever, Folds's lyrics challenge egos and self-importance with a biting mixture of intelligence and insult.
The raw-sounding production on So There, which sees Ben leave in deep breaths taken and the occasional bit of foot tapping and studio noise, does a neat job of adding a sense of fallibility and richness to proceedings. You feel like you're there with him and yMusic, witnessing the creation of a vital and moreish collection of songs.
Its strictly classical elements make it somewhat unprecedented in a brilliant career that has included multiple studio albums, two live albums, a remix collection, music for film and TV, an a cappella record and collaborations with artists as diverse as William Shatner and The Fray. But it still seems an obvious part of the Ben Folds puzzle. This is the guy who once recorded a straight-faced version of the Dr Dre classic B****** Ain't S*** and who once bizarrely made a fake album (2008's Way to Normal, including fake song versions and artwork) as a joke on unsuspecting fans. With Folds, it seems, almost anything is possible.
Folds spent much of 2014 touring the world, performing “Concerto For Piano and Orchestra” and orchestrations of his classic pop hits with some of the greatest-known symphony orchestras. In May of 2014, the concerto was recorded in a single three-hour session at his own Grand Victor Sound Studio in Nashville. He was accompanied by the Nashville Symphony, led by conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, and the session was engineered by multi award-winning Elliot Scheiner (who has also worked with artists such as Beyoncé and Steely Dan and The Eagles, among others).
Folds himself thinks the concerto is not too dissimilar to his previous work, tracing a path from his former band Ben Folds Five's classic 1999 release The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner.
“If you knocked the vocals off that record and string together all the instrumental parts, you’ll hear something that sounds a lot like the concerto,” he says. “It’s something I’ve been doing since the start of my career, it’s part of my voice.”
Folds's classical ambition will not have surprised long-serving fans of Ben Folds Five. On their self-titled 1995 debut, the pianist and frontman paid homage to George Gershwin by lifting a riff straight from Rhapsody in Blue, which was included on the album. Folds, like Gershwin, now seems determined to make music that spans popular and classical genres.
Title track So There is yet another part of that voice, being both a diss track and further evidence of Folds' way with a beautiful tune. On it he asks "How could I forget you, when there's nothing to forget?", arguably the most loaded compliment ever committed to record. Phone in a Pool, which was originally written and recorded by Folds and some chums in an Irish pub some years ago, is a lovely racket fuelled by alcohol and heated rows.
I'm not the Man, originally written (and rejected) for this year's Al Pacino film Danny Collins, hints at Folds's view of himself: "I'm not the man I used to be," he chants over Beatlesesque flute and clarinet. Like the majority of Folds's songs, it's wry, beautiful, fresh and free. And it sets us up nicely for his concerto. Whereas the previous eight songs are arguably fragments of break-ups half-documented, problems frankly shared, the three remaining movements are just about the power of classical music.
The first is cinematic and as busy as an early morning market. Much like the rest of the symphony, the glorious blend of melody, mood and emotion is driven by Folds's piano – which is the leading player throughout. The second movement, full of sombre pauses and spidery piano, is much more plaintive. Strings rise and fall like sea waves, the feeling is blue yet still somehow uplifting. In the final movement, Folds absolutely clatters his piano – so much so, he manages to make it sound like a piano. All the drama, regret and upset of So There seems to coagulate in this angry, woozy track of dizzying scales and chirpy flutes. A fitting finale to a memorable record.
Paul Dorrian is a UK-based freelance journalist.