First Listen: Ben Folds, ‘So There’

Ben Folds' <em>So There, </em> is out now. (Allan Amato/Courtesy of the artist)
Ben Folds’ So There, is out now. (Allan Amato/Courtesy of the artist)

I wrote about Ben Folds’ new album, So There, over at NPR Music for its First Listen series. But after mulling over this album and what Ben Folds’ music once meant to me, I also have some other rambling thoughts, too.

I’ve been a fan and a lapsed fan of Ben Folds from the beginning; since those first Ben Folds Five songs that made me and my high school friends want to blast it on our crappy car speakers as we drove around aimlessly in the suburbs of Kansas City. His songs were infectious and fun, boisterous and pretty, but with a sadness and emotional realness at the core that often went unnoticed I think. I always kinda chuckled to myself when the grocery store I worked at in high school would play “Brick” — a song Folds wrote about a relationship crumbling after he and his girlfriend had an abortion — over its sound system as shoppers bought their milk and eggs.

After Ben Folds Five broke up and Folds went solo, I still bought his records and went to a few live shows — but the ghost of the band always lingered over his new music, as if fans kept newer material at a distance because it wasn’t the full band. I certainly thought “this is good, but a little toothless without the fuzzed out bass and driving drums of Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee” about many of Ben Folds’ solo efforts, which is arguably unfair, but probably kinda true, too.

When the band finally got back together for both a new album and a tour, those diehard fans finally got what they had yearned for. While it was a lot of fun to hear those old now-classic songs again, it also sorta affirmed that I had moved on from Folds’ music — it simply didn’t ache the same way his songs used to when I was younger. My tastes had changed, for one, but also, it’s impossible for anything to recapture old magic the same way.

So with So There, maybe it was as good a time as every to reassess his solo output with new ears and without the expectations of what it wasn’t. In that regard, So There — a New Classical-meets-pop collaboration with the exceptionally innovative New York ensemble yMusic and a recording of Folds’ compositional music with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra — really works. It’s nothing like what you would want from his old band, but it’s also distinctively Ben Folds doing what he does best: heartfelt songs and perfect melodies, enhanced by lavish instrumentation. It’s a great listen.