Looking through the list of musicians who have acted as judges on singing competition shows, Ben Folds’ name sticks out like a sore thumb. While Pharrell and Nicki Minaj have enjoyed critical acclaim as well as massive commercial success, Folds is more of a quirky nostalgia-bomb. His tenure on NBC’s a cappella show The Sing-Off was unexpected (so is the fact that he’s been replaced by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, but we’ll save that for another article), but then again, Folds has always had both a strong, charming voice and a pleasant, affable personality. Those two qualities unite every odd choice Folds has made in his career, including his new album, So There. With that voice and that smile, you can swallow (though not necessarily always love) anything Folds releases, even an album recorded in collaboration with a classical ensemble.
Finding Folds among the ranks of Owen Pallett, Joanna Newsom, and Sufjan Stevens might seem strange, but the flutters and swoons of opening track “Capable of Anything” immediately suggest that he belongs here. Blending grand, layered orchestral arrangements with pop songs is difficult work, but this song proves he’s capable of it. Flutes dart and dive like flocks of birds, while piano and strings creep like verdant underbrush. Folds, meanwhile, stands in the midst of this lush landscape, contemplating a broken relationship and the potential of humanity. “Mythical, holy, good guy/ I want so bad to be/ But I was weak and wrong,” he sings, looking to his ex and the sky in turn, wondering what heights and depths we can actually achieve in our lifetimes.
But Folds isn’t the type of songwriter that can balance maximalist pop on a razor’s edge for an entire album. It helps that those artists’ songs flip through giant tomes of mystical references and build their own mythology. Folds sings here about ruining his phone in a pool in New Orleans and having to go to a concert he doesn’t want to go to. Rather than grand and majestic, things can take a turn for Broadway, and putting an ornate frame on Polaroid photo can make both look a little silly.
That’s not to say that Folds is consistently striving for serious — for every “Brick” there are a couple of “Rockin’ the Suburbs”, after all. On “Not a Fan”, Folds gives himself up as the goofball that he so clearly is. “I’m not a fan of you and your friends/ You’re so well-read, I grew up on sugar cereal and TV,” he begins, before bemoaning going to a concert to watch a dude shake his ass while the subject of his questioning calls it art. But, the good heart that he is, he takes it all in stride: “I understand if there is something that moves you that’s not my cup of tea, that’s part of what makes you beautiful to me.” Depending on your tolerance for cute, the Disney-tastic rise and fall of the melody along with arch piano chording and violin romanticism will either make you smile or throw up. “F10-D-A”, similarly, is two minutes of Folds leading the orchestra through a huge-smile bit: “F D D A/ With a big fat D/ Oh C,” he sings as the piano tilts out each corresponding note, the other musicians matching him eventually, ending with a quiet giggle.
In that sense, the orchestra draws out the purest essence of Folds. When he’s cute, he’s so remarkably cute and knows it. When he’s clever, the same holds true. When he’s singing sincerely and digging into deep emotion, the instrumentation doubles down. That makes dramatic songs like “Capable of Anything” and “I’m Not the Man” the most affective, while others are either momentarily fun or obnoxious, depending on your predisposition. “I wanna be/ I just wanna be,” Folds sings in that crystal clear voice to end “I’m Not the Man”, after reciting fears and doubts about how he’s not who he once was. It’s a beautiful moment, with yMusic framing him hauntingly.
Tellingly, in an interview with NPR, Folds tied his appropriation of the orchestra to its most approachable version: “We all hear a lot of, quote, ‘classical music’ in movies,” he said when asked whether classical music had a declining audience. After eight songs in collaboration with yMusic, the album ends with a three-part “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra”, a composition that Folds wrote when co-commissioned by the Nashville Symphony, Nashville Ballet, and Minnesota Orchestra. The piece stretches between classical, pop, jazz, and more as Folds emulates Leonard Bernstein, at turns whimsical and beautiful. The biggest takeaway here is that an album that interspersed instrumental passages like these between pop-friendly tracks could work well as a soundtrack, or a Broadway score, better tying the music to the narrative. Folds’ gifts for narrative and composing are clear, but fusing the two more fluidly could be something magical.
Essential Tracks: “Capable of Anything”, “I’m Not the Man”