Ben Folds’ penchant for pop is well established, first sewn in the guise of the Ben Folds Five and later as part of an enduring solo career. Indeed, those who can hold the helm seated at the keyboard are part of a very specific breed — with Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, Billy Joel. Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman making up nearly the entire membership. So Folds certainly deserves credit for being so prodigious and garnering such a faithful following in the first place. Still, with the demise of his namesake trio — yes, it was part and parcel of Folds’ wry sense of humor that only three players constituted the Five — Folds’ trail forward isn’t as clearly defined.
That being the case, Folds is clearly free to divert his sights and adjust his muse. So There finds him doing exactly that, and because it’s such an unexpected turn, fans and followers may find themselves totally revamping their perceptions. With New York City instrumental outfit yMusic— Folds’ adapts his pop precepts to songs for piano and strings, fashioning the first eight songs with a chamber pop pastiche and turning the final three into a three part “Concerto for Piano and Strings.” It’s a dramatic turn to be sure — perhaps even akin to Dylan’s unexpected electric set at Newport in terms up upsetting audience expectations. Indeed, it remains to be seen how Folds’ fans will react to this sudden shift in stance.
What makes this so unlikely is the fact that Folds forsakes his singing entirely on the Symphonic collaboration with the Nashville Symphony, bowing to conductor Giancarlo Guerrero while integrating his keyboards into the orchestrated mix. One is reminded of Emerson or Jon Lord’s attempts to integrate rock and classical motifs as an affirmation of their progressive posture early on, but in Folds’ case, there’s a lot less posturing and likely no pretence involved. Still, it’s a big risk for him to suddenly jettison his song style for the sake of these arched ambitions, and there’s certainly no guarantee it will pay off when it comes to staying in good favor with his fans. If he’s simply trying to exorcise his artistic inclinations, more power to him. But it’s also worth remembering that Paul McCartney and Billy Joel also detoured into classical conceits and found a very limited audience willing to follow on with their indulgence.
Happily, the first set of songs here prove fruitful in terms of expanding on Folds’ traditional tact, and the gilded melodies that accompany “Capable of Anything” (a particularly apt title by the way), “Long Way to Go,” “Yes Man” and “Not a Fan” find Folds playing with the tone and tempos and integrating hints of jazz into the shifting styles. It’s almost as intriguing as the final headfirst plunge into strings, and yet listeners are still left grappling for hooks to hold on to. It’s an adventurous avenue Folds finds himself on, and not the most accessible route either, Nevertheless, it’s clear Ben Folds has elevated his artistic intent fearlessly and deliberately, and for that he deserves considerable credit.