Ben Folds Five
The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
The last time piano-nerd-poet Ben Folds made an album with his Ben Folds Five bandmates, Bill Clinton was in office, The Phantom Menace was tarnishing the Star Wars legacy in real-time, and Napster was just starting to dismantle the music industry. But since that album, 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, it’s not like Folds shoved his piano in the closet and rested on his laurels: He released three solo albums, produced William Shatner’s 2004 spoken-word album Has Been, collaborated with novelist Nick Hornby on 2010’s Lonely Avenue, and even made an extremely unlikely return to the mainstream as a vocal coach on NBC’s a-capella music competition, The Sing-Off.
During that time, Folds settled into his role as a playful alt-rock elder statesmen, nabbing a couple minor, goofy hits (the corporate-rock parody “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” the hilarious Dr. Dre cover “Bitches Ain’t Shit”) and playing his trademark brand of sensitive, literate, piano-driven wiseass-rock—maybe for a narrower audience, but one who revered him as something of a modern Randy Newman.
All things considered, there doesn’t seem to be a commercial motivation behind the band’s 2012 reunion. It’s been ages since their 1995 debut, Whatever & Ever Amen (and its smash ballad “Brick”), and either way you slice it, Folds is the one writing most of the material, whether in a solo or band context. But as The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind commences, with a flurry of stripped-down aggression, crashing out of the gate with “Erase Me”‘s tumbling-down-the-stairs piano, nasty ripples of fuzz-bass, and crashing jazz-rock drums, all questions of motivation fall by the wayside. In bassist Robert Sledge and percussionist Darren Jessee, Folds has two versatile, highly-skilled players that keep his tongue-in-cheek wordplay and quirky vocals grounded, bringing out the muscle and mischief of his best music.
“Erase Me” is perfect, quintessential Ben Folds Five, capturing the raw, tense excitement that propelled the band’s earliest material. After an intro tease of primal pound, the verses settle into dreamy, lounge-y reflection, with Folds soaring to his prettiest falsetto, later perked up by Jessee’s tight, jazzy drumming and Sledge’s downright nasty bass fills. The chorus finds Folds harmonizing with himself in a psuedo-nerd-choir, requesting his emotional adversary to “put me in the ground and mow the daisies,” before flexing his classical-jazz piano chops.
The momentum continues with “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” a less chaotic number with a more spacious arrangement that puts emphasis on Folds’ backward-glancing lyrics. “I never thought I’d see this guy again,” Folds sings of the title character, “Every five years since 1972 / When at recess, he recruited me to try to kick the church down to the ground.” It feels like a post-grad sequel to early classic “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces,” another track that funneled adolescent angst into piano-stomping catharsis. Meanwhile, the atmospheric, tear-streaked lighter-waver “Sky High” mines the same emotional territory as “Brick,” utilizing Folds’ more grounded vocal approach and a simplified piano arrangement.
Unfortunately, The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind loses a little steam after that outstanding opening trifecta, either when Folds leans too heavily on his flashy lyricism or downplays his band’s instrumental strengths. “On Being Frank” finds Folds in lounge crooner mode, singing cliché lyrics (example: “Shadows always fall when the sun goes down”) over canned strings and elevator music piano. “Away When You Were Here” wrangles major emotion from its lyrics, but the music neuters the substance with more bland orchestrations and bored rhythms. But even on his weakest songs, Folds remains a captivating pianist, and few songwriters (especially in today’s age of indie lyrical detachment) possess that Dylan-esque quality of making you focus on every single word, waiting for wisdom.
The clever wordplay, the humor, the instrumental power—it all comes to a head on the shoutable pop anthem “Draw a Crowd.” “If you’re feeling small,” Folds sings, “And you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall.” Good advice, but maybe less profound than “I only wanted to be Stevie Wonder / But I gotta settle for this vanilla thunder.”
It’s hilarious, tuneful, well-played, and a tad awkward—but that’s Ben Folds, lovable warts and all, and it’s an absolute pleasure to have him back.