While 2011's Inclusions allowed cellist Ben Sollee to show off his technical skill in a low-key indie-pop context, he expands his sonic palette on the far more adventurous Half Made Man. Sollee's classical training still drives his aesthetic on his latest album, but he's incorporated his progressive, forward-thinking take on orchestral arrangements into a range of styles that runs the gamut from vintage soul to lo-fi rock to classic country. And it's a testament to his smart, measured risk-taking and his intuitive approach to pop music that Half Made Man emerges as a focused and coherent album in spite of its genre-hopping.
Sollee strikes an impressive balance between showcasing the classical training that makes him so unique and indulging in his more creative impulses. The layering of deep tones from the cello in lieu of more conventional electric bass figures gives an ominous vibe to the grunge-inspired arrangement of "Get Off Your Knees," while the string section on "The Healer" plays against some African-style percussion, recalling Paul Simon's Graceland. "Slow Down" is an understated Quiet Storm-style soul ballad with tasteful orchestral flourishes, and Sollee's cello stands in for an upright bass on the country-tinged "Roam in the Dark," which also boasts standout steel guitar work from My Morning Jacket's Carl Broemel.
While the newfound range in Sollee's aesthetic choices is immediately striking, the greater depth and refinement in his songwriting is what makes Half Made Man one of the year's most vital albums. His lyrics have occasionally skewed a bit precious on previous efforts, but both "DIY" and "Unfinished" reflect a clear-eyed perspective on how personal growth and maturity are self-directed processes, while the relationships described on opener "Whole Lot to Give" and "Some Lovin'" emphasize deeply felt connections and value reciprocity.
Sollee is well known in his native Kentucky for his political activism, and "Get Off Your Knees" and "The Pursuit of Happiness" showcase his sincere empathy and strongly humanist bent without resorting to heavy-handed grandstanding. Whether he's reflecting on his relationship with his son or considering the plight of laborers affected by mountaintop removal mining, Sollee's focus is on progress that's driven by self-awareness and resourcefulness. And that point of view is reinforced by the DIY approach he took to writing and recording the album and by the wide range of influences and source material he drew from in arranging the songs.