For a generation who came of age in the ‘90s, Ben Folds is every bit as iconic as piano-pop elder statesmen like Joe Jackson, Elton John and Billy Joel. The North Carolina native may have started as an alt-rock prankster who billed the Ben Folds Five as “punk rock for sissies,” but the snark and sarcasm behind tunes like “Underground” belied a serious songwriting talent with classical music training (he actually attended University of Miami on a percussion scholarship).
His post-BFF career has seen plenty of zigs and zags, from mainstream-accessible solo work (see: Rockin’ the Suburbs) and bizarro collaborations (see: Weird Al, William Shatner, author Nick Hornby) to movie soundtracks and a cappella music (see: judging NBC’s The Sing-Off). So There, Ben Fold’s new album, finds him going into full-on orchestral pop mode which doesn’t seem as much like a surprise as it does the continuation of a 20-year musical career whose sole unifying principle is constant reinvention via experimentation.
The album is essentially divided into two parts: The first 8 songs find him working with New York chamber group yMusic Ensemble, the last three consist of his “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” which was co-commissioned by the Nashville Symphony, Nashville Ballet and Minnesota Orchestra. Though the 3-movement, 21-minute epic is intriguing, blending elements of classical music, pop and jazz like a modern-day Aaron Copland or Leonard Bernstein, it’s the work with Music that brings out Ben’s best.
The opening track, “Capable of Anything,” is one of Folds’ finest in years: As the lyrics muse on a failed relationship and the best and worst elements humanity has to offer, flutes flit and flutter above, strings add a dramatic undercurrent and the piano provides syncopated counterpoint to the melancholy melody. On the gorgeously romantic waltz balladry of “Not A Fan,” he questions whether cultural differences will ultimately tear his relationship apart.
Not everything here is so serious: On the infectiously poppy “Phone in a Pool” he channels ELO while joking/not joking about his romantic failures, while “F10-D-A” is a willfully crude musical pun (“f’d in the a with a big fat d”) that reduces the orchestral ensemble to childlike giggles. But it’s somber, contemplative songs like“I’m Not the Man” that seem truest to the man— and the songwriter– Ben Folds has grown to be: Older, wiser, bruised by four divorces, and trying to remain hopeful about the future while mourning his past.
The album (like the man) isn’t perfect, but it’s better than anything his piano-pop peers have released in years. (B+)