Back when Ben Folds embarked on his solo career, I distinctly remember listening to some of the songs and thinking that the difference in style wasn’t enough to justify dissolving the band; The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner was already a significant departure from the strictly-piano-and-drums-and-fuzz-bass sound that Ben Folds Five started out with, so where was the dividing line where this album was still Ben Folds Five, but the next album’s material was no longer suitable? (As it turned out, the dividing line was actually the distance from South Carolina to Australia – Folds moved down under to get married.)
With Folds now back in the United States, it was only a matter of time before the most obvious idea in the world, namely getting the band back together, occurred to Folds instead of just to the fans. And while Sony would probably have been more than happy for the group to get back into the studio, Folds opted to crowd-fund the recording sessions, with incentives such as downloads for those who helped foot the bill for the band’s reunion. The result is The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, an album that’s better than I had dared hope. The opening track, “Erase Me”, is enough to make you think that Ben Folds Five was never away.
Once past the lead track, however, we finally get the promise of a post-Reinhold Messner Ben Folds Five, and it confirms my feeling, from the early 21st century, that there was no need to break up the band in the first place. Songs like “Sky High”and “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” split the difference between Folds’ more orchestrated solo work and the Ben Folds Five sound, though the balance tips toward one extreme or the other elsewhere: “On Being Frank” is a lush ballad about a hanger-on in Frank Sinatra’s entourage suddenly being cut loose, and sounds much more like Folds’ solo work. The opposite end of the scale, and the most Ben Folds Five-like tune on the album, is also the catchiest: “Draw A Crowd” has a punchy melody, though the lyrics of the chorus (“if you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall”) will sadly cheat it out of any kind of radio airplay, which it richly deserves – the tune is just an insanely catchy earworm.
The lead single, instead, is “Do It Anyway”, a half-sung, half-spoken ode to reckless youthful abandon and poor decision-making. (Hell, I feel like I’m 25 years old again just listening to it.) The last three songs on the album are less frantic and more contemplative, as is often the case as Folds closes out an album (with or without the rest of his band).
The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is a rare reunion album. It’s been over 15 years since I was introduced to Ben Folds Five, back when a friend dropped by my place to cheer me up while I was recovering from a fairly rough surgery experience and played Whatever And Ever, Amen for me, and rather than sounding like a pale echo of its original sound, Ben Folds Five’s latest has the same irresistible appeal as the group did the first time I heard them, even though the group’s sound has evolved. Fans will probably latch onto it instantly, and after all this time off the map, Ben Folds Five might just find a few new fans too.
- Erase Me (5:15)
- Michael Praytor, Five Years Later (4:32)
- Sky High (4:42)
- The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (4:13)
- On Being Frank (4:34)
- Draw A Crowd (4:14)
- Do It Anyway (4:23)
- Hold That Thought (4:14)
- Away When You Were Here (3:31)
- Thank You For Breaking My Heart (4:50)
Released by: Sony
Release date: September 18, 2012
Total running time: 44:28