Ben Folds Five is one of the best bands from the ’90s, period. Their 1995 self-titled debut was a lavish power-pop banquet, positively filled to the gunwales with indelible hooks and clever lyrics. It provided a sanctuary for indie-minded music fans who stood in opposition to the roundly glum alternative landscape at the time (Ben Folds himself has described the band’s music as “punk rock for sissies”). By 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen, Folds officially belonged to the pop-God pantheon, his accomplishments on the same level as, dare I say, McCartney’s or Costello’s. While the record more or less expanded on the formula established with their debut, Folds’s songwriting had become much more sophisticated: his words weightier and melodies sharper, he tears apart past enemies from his impregnable pedestal of fame on the record’s opening cut, “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces”, and then says what Joe Jackson was too much of a goody-goody to say outright for the entire duration of “On Your Radio” in two meager measures: “kiss my ass, goodbye.” The refrain to “Song for the Dumped” is simply “Give me my money back, you bitch! / And don’t forget my black t-shirt” — a line so effectively, wantonly fucked up, it could redden Bukowski’s cheeks. This nerd sought revenge.
The band’s third record, 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, lacked the tuneful immediacy of its predecessors, but contains two of Folds’s best compositions with the group, “Mess” and “Regrets”. It’s also host to some of the band’s weakest — the Jobim-y “Jane” and the awkward, ersatz jazz jam of “Your Most Valuable Possession” being the first that come to mind.
Bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee’s contributions to Ben Folds Five’s sound were subtle, but of utmost significance — compare any of these aforementioned records with Folds’ solo material, and hopefully you’ll understand what I mean. While Folds’ songwriting has remained consistently great even after BFF’s breakup (the closest he got to losing his way was with 2008’s Way To Normal), he hasn’t been able to recapture the electricity his former group generated. Until now. The group’s new record, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, is at the very least evidence that this magic can in large part be attributed to Sledge and Jessee, that Ben Folds Five is not merely a Ben Folds solo vehicle, and that these two musicians are essentially responsible for supplementing Folds’s compositions with that much-welcomed edge that’s glaringly absent from most if not all of his solo work.
First, let’s talk a little bit more about how Ben Folds Five, as you likely know, is a piano/drums/bass trio that usually eschew additional instrumentation. Sledge’s bass is almost constantly running through a fuzz pedal and his tone is so ambiguously mid-range-y, and his basslines so melodic, that the instrument often doubles as an electric guitar. Jessee’s drumming is galvanic and melodically conscious — he’s flashy, but his drums never oppress the songs or other players. Everybody in the band is also a singer, and the blend these three musicians’ voices make is exquisite (the band never received proper credit for being able to pull off those complex three-part harmonies live). The ruthless rhythm section of Jessee and Sledge compliment Folds’s relative frailty wonderfully, and their presence on The Sound… after over a decade of seclusion should be enough motivation for picking up the record on its own.
The album more or less begins where the band left off. Melodramatic album-opener “Erase Me” is “Song For The Dumped”‘s grown-up equivalent (the line “drawing mustaches on our wedding photo” suggests that there’s way, way more at stake here). On lines like “Erase me so you don’t have to face me / Put me in the ground and mow the daisies,” it’s clear: Ben Folds as you remember him has returned, ladies and gentlemen! Never ashamed to flaunt his jazz pedigree, Folds utilizes all sorts of dizzying, unpredictable chord changes here, and tops it all off with tactful homage to Queen in the chorus. It’s a great way of announcing the group’s return: to commission a cliche, “Erase Me” sounds both familiar and fresh.
Follow-up “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” just sounds familiar, which is no less a great thing. This is the kind of poignant, buoyant piano rock we’ve come to expect from Folds, and the band knocks it out of the park. The title track is the latest Folds/Nick Hornby collaboration, and it’s easily weaker than any material off Lonely Avenue, making its inclusion kind of a mystery. Luckily, the next track “On Being Frank” is possibly the best track on the album, a stupefying throwback to antecedent piano-rockers Todd Rundgren and Carole King (the opening chord is lifted from “So Far Away”), featuring possibly Folds’s most elegiac melody since that little teen pregnancy vignette “Brick”. The strings are inconspicuous and inspired — employing orchestral flourishes in the context of a rock song can be tricky to make sound natural, but here it’s executed with flying colors. The strangely optimistic “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” is Folds’s best closer since the first record’s “Boxing” — “thank you for breaking my heart / now I know that it’s in there” contends for one of Folds’ best, more direct kiss-offs.
Ben Folds Five have defied the convention of reuniting and releasing an album that merely sounds like a reunion album — there is a lot of life in The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Like cheese, wine, leather, et cetera, Folds’s songwriting has aged marvelously, and he, conveniently, is in top form on his old band’s first new recording in over a decade. And true, the haughty spunk that characterized the band’s first three records is more or less missing from this one, but Folds makes up for it by re-approaching topics like lost love and remorse with a more seasoned perspective (“Erase Me”, “Michael Praytor Five Years Later”, “Away When You Were Here”, “Thank You For Breaking My Heart”) — only “Do It Anyway” and the title track sound at all like amenable pandering. All the rest feels totally organic. Mostly, they sound happy to be back — and God knows they aren’t the only ones.