Review: Ben Sollee’s Half Made Man

Ben Sollee and his cello. Photo by Magnus Lindqvist | bensollee.com.

This seems to be the month of folky artists giving us big new albums that push their largely acoustic boundaries.

We have Mumford and Sons with Babel, which the band told Q‘s Jian Ghomeshi was partly a fulfillment of their desire to perform as a rock band.

And we have Lexington’s Ben Sollee, who to this point had made his reputation as the folky cello guy — as well as the writer of thoughtful, pointed songs — offering a new album that has several diversions from his regular profile. That starts the second that Half Made Man begins. Whole Lot to Give immediately draws listeners in with a big rock-pop sound anchored by an electrified riff and Sollee offering as focused a singing performance as he ever has. That and the defiant The Healer had me thinking this is going to be Sollee’s rock-anthem hymnal when DIY drew me back into a more familiar mood — high-energy, rootsy music with a defiant message. That feel continues in tunes such as Get Off Your Knees, and then there is the sonic and lyrical loveliness of Roam in the Dark and The Maestro — reminiscent of his Bible Belt — and the album closers The Pursuit of Happiness and Some Lovin’, which feel as familiar from Sollee as Half Made Man’s openers felt like departures.

On this latest effort, Sollee offers a variety of moods and styles without making it sound like a mess. There is a cohesiveness in the songwriting, arranging and musicianship, with guests including  My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel on a variety of guitars, bassist Alana Rocklin, percussionist Jordon Ellis, violinist Jeremy Kittel and vocalist Abigail Washburn. Even if audiences are still discovering Sollee, clearly his fellow musicians are already big fans.

There is a point in Half Made Man when you might forget Sollee is primary a cellist. Yes, we still hear the soulful sound and admire Sollee’s mastery of it. But now that sound is him, and there is no longer a novelty to it. We focus on the music, which stands on its own.

Half Made Man dwells on lyrics about people in progress, but increasingly, Sollee is becoming a fully formed artist.

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