Ben Folds Returns: And The Piano Man’s Still Got It

In Ben Folds’ childhood home, there was a half-smashed stack of unmarked 45-inch records. They belonged to his mother, who had a fondness for Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley. On the merit of the first two artists, her son agreed—Folds wore down the grooves on every album by black piano-playing artists that he could get his hands on. The Elvis records, however, he shattered. Broke them all to pieces ’til it rained vinyl in the living room.

“There was no grit to it,” he recalled recently in an interview with Kevin Pollak. “That all just sounded like Vegas to me.”

Since then he has cut a few odd, edgy tracks of his own. Employing an eye for banality and small tragedy that recalls Carver and Updike, Folds has imbued the art of the pop song with sadness, satire, and wry humor. He’s collaborated with Captain Kirk and Weird Al, judged NBC’s The Sing-Off, and made piano-driven “punk rock for sissies” a genre to be reckoned with on the charts.

But the grit hasn’t gone anywhere. On So There, his recent collaboration with New York classical ensemble yMusic, Ben Folds delivers his most nuanced, cheeky, and deceptively devastating collection to date. He’s in full form here, approaching lyric writing and orchestral composition with equal parts honesty and quirky artfulness.

In one sense, So There is a tight pop album with a tail. The first half—eight windswept tracks of melodic, lyrical camber rock—could stand on its own fairly well without the B-side’s long, complex classical opus. Standout tracks like the lush, rhythmic opener “Capable of Anything” and early-70s ballad inspired “Long Way To Go” would be enough to prop up any decent pop pianist’s live set list for months.

But the album’s true pleasure comes from the subtle interplay between its two sections. Both parts are masterfully written, and the space between them is less a clear divide than a fault line. It marks a separation, yet allows elements of each side’s style, structure and form to bleed across. The result is one troubling, cohesive portrait of dependence and regret, painted with strokes of Elton John, Neil Sedaka, and George Gershwin.

Folds has incorporated orchestras before (most notably on his beautiful 2001 ballad The Luckiest), but yMusic serves a much greater purpose. Rather than hanging back and offering drawn-out chords of accompaniment, the sextet becomes an integral part of the structure. They offer a deep, flowing countermelody on the doo-wop inspired title track, and carry a majority of the plaintive “Yes Man.” When Folds sings, “Now I’m cryin’ all the way from the Photo-mat / ’Cause I see that I’ve got more chins than a Chinese phonebook” on the latter track, it’s the orchestral arrangement that keeps us just north of total insanity.

Musically, things come to a head at the conclusion of the pop section in a slow-building ballad called “I’m Not the Man.” One minute in, there’s a moment of near-perfect cohesion between all the album’s pieces. Flute, clarinet, and the string trio converge under a rolling right-hand piano line, introduced by the simple, demotic phrase: “I’m not the man I used to be.” This is the opposite of the boring, self-indulgent gimmick that this project could have become.

But Folds hasn’t lost his sense of humor. Jokes and turns of phrase abound, reaching peak ridiculousness on “F10-D-A” (composed around the double entendre “F’d in the A with a D”). Even this, however, shares musical DNA with Bach and Beethoven. The whole song is a single, simple phrase, manipulated throughout—a baroque trope employed again in the second movement of the classical piece.

What’s remarkable about that song, and the album itself, is that it blends so many seemingly disparate elements into something profound and engaging. It is at once a reluctant embrace and rebuke of modernity, incorporating lines about “a note composed with thumbs and phones” without irony, while describing the liberation that comes with throwing one’s cell phone into the water for good. It cracks crude jokes, but couches them in age-old questions, and it relies on old instruments, playing arrangements so fresh that they sounds brand new.

Featured Image Courtesy of 51:50 Records

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About Sean McGowan 19 Articles
Sean McGowan is a staff Opinions columnist for The Heights. He is a member of the Class of 2016, double majoring in English and Philosophy. He has been writing for The Heights since September 2014.