Ben Folds has never made the same album twice. While that’s a by-product of his disinterest in revisiting past work unless it’s through the lens of sarcasm or irony, it’s also a function of his fondness for comfort-zone-stretching collaborations. In recent years, Folds has teamed up with everyone from a cappella groups (judging The Sing Off; producing 2009’s Ben Folds Presents: University A Cappella! LP) to author Nick Hornby (who wrote the lyrics for 2010’s Lonely Avenue).
So There is another collaborative release that’s actually two different albums in one: eight chamber-rock songs constructed with New York City classical ensemble yMusic, and then the three-movement “Concerto For Piano And Orchestra” recorded with the Nashville Symphony. Folds has been performing the concerto on his recent tour dates with various symphonies, and it’s an absolutely lovely piece of work performed with impeccable grace and nuance. However, the concerto’s placement at the end of So There unfortunately makes it feel like an afterthought, something to bulk up the record’s track listing rather than a crowning achievement.
Musically, however, it’s certainly of a piece with the first two-thirds of So There. This is impressive, considering these songs contain some of Folds’ most sardonic (and affecting) lyrics in years, tunes written on the other side of a disintegrated relationship. “Capable Of Anything” details the sour aftermath, where accusations of martyrdom and self-importance run rampant; “Yes Man” rues poor decisions made and red flags missed while a couple was together; and the title track uses stark imagery (an unsent text, a sparsely furnished apartment) to detail post-breakup bitterness and numbness. Only “I’m Not The Man,” whose protagonist declares that he’s tired of letting everyone down and has changed for the better, exhibits glimmers of optimism.
Yet So There isn’t a downer, mainly because yMusic’s effervescent contributions bring out the best in Folds. “Capable Of Anything” weaves jaunty piano between stuttering horns, dainty strings, and flutes; the result sounds like a carefree elementary school playground chase. Strings quiver and shake in the background of the title track, acquiescing to muted horns, trilling flutes, and cascading piano melodies, while the subdued “Not A Fan” similarly features resigned violin and viola swells. The members of yMusic even gamely play along on the crude “F10-D-A”: As Folds winkingly conflates the names of musical notes with slang for sex and genitalia, the musicians follow along and cloak the crassness with whimsy.
In the end, So There’s more straightforward piano-rock moments also benefit from yMusic’s influence. The pizzicato plucking, trumpet, and harmonies amplify the classic rock vibe of “Phone In A Pool,” while “Long Way To Go” is a dead ringer for mid-’70s Elton John, and “Yes Man” has layered harmonies that are reminiscent of ELO. No matter how far Folds strays from his roots, he’ll never be able to shake his core love of music that challenges as well as entertains. For fans, that’s a lucky thing indeed.