Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind (review)

Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind (Ima Vee Pee / Sony) review

First new album in 12 years

Damn the concept album.  The Beatles were never the same after Sgt. Pepper, Brian Wilson lost his marbles during SMiLE, and Ben Folds Five broke up after their conceptual The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.  Folds had pushed the trio as far as they were going to go, and decided instead to go it alone.  Over the last 12 years, he’s established himself as a formidable solo artist, collaborating with filmmaker Nick Hornby, and even scoring the kids movie Over the Hedge.  But, as good as his music has been, there’s something about the original two guys –  the bordering-on-chaos drumming of Darren Jessee and the as-muscled-as-a-lead-guitar bass of Robert Sledge, that’s always pushed Folds further.  At their best, Ben Folds Five were a mix of 70’s AM melodicism and punk-fueled energy, augmented by oftentimes school-boy humor.  After over a decade layoff, the trio is back with The Sound of the Life of the Mind, and it was well worth the wait.

Despite an album title that seems more fitting for a Pink Floyd concept LP, there’s no underlying story like their last studio effort.  The album opens with piano, fuzz bass and pounding drums – it’s as if they’ve never left.   Ominous chords start “Erase Me,” a biting breakup song who’s melody and rapid-fire chorus would sound quite at home on Top 40, albeit with a different arrangement.  That’s followed by the unabashed power pop of “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” which continues the theme of randomness which he covered on “From Above,” off his last album.

Probably the biggest improvement is in the background vocals, which are used to add deep colors to many of the songs. There’s also a hefty amount of slower numbers.   “Sky High” begins with a 10CC-like chorus of voices which add to the atmosphere of the light ballad.  “On Being Frank” features excellent strings from Elton John arranger Paul Buckmaster, while Folds sings of moving on after the passing of someone you poured your life into (in this case, the Frank is Sinatra).  A nice Hammond organ distinguishes “Hold That Thought” as another keeper. The best ballad, “Away When You Were Here,” fueled by tasteful strings, works as a letter to a dad that’s passed on.

There is one leftover from his collaboration with Hornby, “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” is another excellent character sketch of a girl that doesn’t fit in with her classmates.  The background vocals that follow the chorus are stunning.  Hopefully, the two are planning to work again in the near future.

The album’s most infectious track is also classic Ben Folds at his snarkiest.  “Draw a Crowd” begins with an incredibly melodic pounding piano before giving way to an explosive chorus of “if you can’t draw a crowd / draw dicks on the wall,” and features such inane lyrics as “so smooth / you can feel the beard.”  At the end of the track, Ben unleashes an incredibly soulful falsetto a la Marvin Gaye.  In a way, it’s too bad – with altered lyrics, this could be a hit.  Instead, the frenetic shuffle of “Do It Anyway” was the album’s first single.  That song’s lyrics come off as both advice to the younger generation, and admission of his own softening as he ages.

Admittedly, Folds’ career has been frustrating to watch.  On one hand, he’s the most gifted melodic songwriter of the last twenty years.  If there was any justice in the world, his songs would be blasting out of car radios all over America.  On the other, Folds has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be Elton John or Billy Joel, and continues to forge his own path.  In a way, it’s refreshing to see that he’s still got his sense of humor intact.  An entire album of completely serious music just wouldn’t seem right coming from him.

I’m not sure how long the band rehearsed, but it’s amazing how tight they still are – adding the perfect mix of fury and gentleness wherever needed to Folds’ compositions.  If there’s a slight knock on the album, it’s that it’s a little too heavy on the slow songs (good slow songs, but slow, nonetheless).  The Sound of the Life of the Mind is full of that uncanny melodic sense and unbridled energy that have become signatures of the band’s enduring legacy.  An album this good from start to finish doesn’t come along that often.  Hail the return of the Ben Folds Five.  –Tony Peters