After what seemed like an eternity (13 years, if you're counting), Ben Folds Five have finally gotten back together to record a new album. Perhaps it should be no surprise, given that the album was crowd-funded through PledgeMusic, but The Sound of the Life of the Mind seems to be much more a love letter to Ben Folds Five's diehard fans than it is a reunion with the Whatever and Ever, Amen crowd. It's a record for the people who looked past the fun, catchy singles ("Song for the Dumped") and the chart-toppers ("Brick); rather, it's for those who found the quirky brilliance in "Julianne," or who list their favorite BFF song as "Missing the War" or "The Last Polka." It's for fans who thought the band's last album, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, was criminally-underrated or underappreciated. It's for anyone who knew that album well enough to spell Reinhold Messner without looking it up.
If the last paragraph meant nothing to you - it's okay. The Sound of the Life of the Mind has something for you, too. But just be warned that there are no Angry Dwarves on this record.
Despite everything I just said, the opening track of the album, "Erase Me," recalls "Song for the Dumped" in spirit if not in sound. Folds has assumed the spurned lover persona since then, but rarely this bitterly: "Erase me / So you don't have to face me / Erase me / I'm sure you can never escape me / And if you feel nothing / Guess where I'll be."
Our first introduction to this new material came in the form of the demo for "Do It Anyway," which was very much in the general wheelhouse of Ben Folds Five's early work. That song is mostly (entirely?) unchanged in its final form - a personal relief. There's nothing worse than hearing a demo, loving it enough to get attached to it, and then having the "official" version sound just different enough for it to become a sore spot. Thankfully, that doesn't happen here.
But beyond that, much of the new record uses Messner as a launching point, along with the stylistic turn Folds took on his solo records. After the Five broke up, Folds' songwriting seemed to shift from first- to third-person on his solo records. The songs weren't any less heartbreaking, but instead of the soul-crushing, self-deprecating autobiographies, Folds began to explore tragedy in the lives of others. It was more apparent on the first solo album than on the two that followed, but Folds seems to have returned to it here, with songs like "Michael Praytor" and the title track (whose lyrics were actually written by novelist Nick Hornby). Likewise, "On Being Frank" is written from the perspective of a former assistant to Frank Sinatra, directionless in his own life after the legendary singer's death. And while written in first-person, "Away When You Were Here" is an entirely fictional account of growing up with an absent father.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind is not a Folds solo record, though, due to the contributions of his bandmates Darren Jessee (drums) and Robert Sledge (bass), along with producer Joe Pisapia (formerly of the band Guster). There's something special that happens when dudes get together to do dude-stuff, as opposed to what dudes do when we're alone. That may sound odd, but dudes know what I mean. (Sorry, ladies.) You can hear that these three guys had a great time getting back together to make music. It's there in every gang vocal line, and in the occasional intra-song meta-commentary ("So smooth you can hear the beard / So smooth you can hear the beard / Three times is poetry / So smooth you can hear the beard!"). It's in "Sky High," the touching ballad written by Jessee (who also wrote Messner's "Magic" and co-wrote several of the band's other songs, including "Brick," "Song for the Dumped," and "Kate"). And no one else plays the bass quite like Robert Sledge.
Oh...and only Ben Folds Five could get away with a chorus like, "If you can't draw a crowd, draw dicks on a wall." I can't wait to hear an entire venue full of people chanting along to that one.
Thirteen years later, a new generation of disaffected teenagers isn't likely to latch onto Ben Folds Five, but that's not their focus anymore. Folds, Jessee, and Sledge are older, wiser, and - thank the heavens - making music together again.
Draw a Crowd:
The Sound of the Life of the Mind: