It’s quite helpful, actually, that “Erase Me” is what begins Ben Folds Five’s fourth album. Given that it’s been thirteen years since the third, it was entirely possible that we’d have forgotten exactly what it was that was so special about the three who make up the Five. And yet, you push play on this disc, and it’s all FUZZ BASS IN YOUR FACE, and BANG CRASH BANG on the drums, and CLOMP CLOMP CLOMPCLOMPCLOMP on the piano, and it’s like coming home. Ben Folds has written and released an awful lot of music in the time since The Unauthorized Autobiography of Reinhold Messner, and while almost all of it is immediately identifiable as Ben Folds, none of it sounds the way this does.
So if nothing else, the Five has put together an album that sounds like the Five.
As for the songs, well, the inclination is to say that The Sound of the Life of the Mind is an understandable departure for the band, but we can’t really say that, can we? The first album sounded like a talented three-piece getting its feet wet and finding an occasional spot of utter brilliance, and Whatever and Ever Amen was the refinement and maturing of that sound. Then Reinhold Messner happened, and it became clear that to predict the sound of a Ben Folds Five album was sheer folly. While you didn’t need many reference points past Billy Joel, Elton John, and maybe a bit of The Ramones thrown in for attitude’s sake for the first two albums, Reinhold Messner brought in bits of Queen and Pink Floyd in an attempt to make an appropriately difficult album that centered on the decidedly grown-up topic of a messy divorce.
So really, there’s no saying that “this sounds like a Ben Folds Five song”, or “this sounds like a Ben Folds solo joint”, because we never really got the chance to define what that meant.
That said, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a short album that makes the most of its runtime. “Erase Me” is a brilliant way to start, given that the familiar sound described above mitigates the fact that it’s nothing like anything we’ve heard from either Ben Folds Five or the solo Ben, a song with a jumpy little beat straight out of the scene in a musical in which the protagonist has gone slightly mad. If it can be compared to anything in the Folds catalogue, “Narcolepsy” is its closest kin, but only for the downcast way it starts an album and the gleeful way it confounds expectations.
From there on out, the band settles into a nice little groove, mostly downplaying their more theatrical inclinations for a collection of songs that are mostly pleasant and very much grownup, for all the good and bad connotations that word can have. “Sky High” is subtle enough to just float by, which is exactly what it will do if you don’t pay attention to it. Pay attention, though, and you get a complex, heartbreaking portrait of regret, complete with chord progressions and instrumental flourishes to match. “Hold That Thought” evokes Reinhold Messner in spurts, with a piano line that reminds of “Mess” and the occasional vocal wall that recalls the end of “Regrets”, but mostly it’s a downcast number with a quick beat that sounds like it might have fit in well on Songs for Silverman. Closer “Thank You for Breaking My Heart” is a beautiful waltz that’s equal parts “Songs of Love” and “Nocturne in E-flat Major”.
These are not the types of songs written by a band trying to make a comeback that screams for attention. They’re just, you know, songs, and good ones at that.
Sure, some of these songs do scream for attention. “Do It Anyway” starts out fast and nutty and only gets faster and nuttier — it’s a self-help anthem as only Ben Folds could write. “Michael Prayter, Five Years Later” is a Folds-trademarked character study that features lots of big falsetto melodies and harmonies. On the flipside, though, “Draw a Crowd” feels like an ill-advised bone thrown to the kids who haven’t aged since 1999 with its self-consciously awkward musical transitions and crude lyrics.
It’s not really a stretch, or even an insult, to say that Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee play second and third fiddle to Folds on a Ben Folds Five album. Still, to finally get to hear them together again for ten glorious songs highlights what it is exactly the two of them added to the mix so many years ago. Rarely as showy or virtuosic as their frontman, they offer the perfect complement to Folds’ textured keyboards and off-kilter vocal melodies. They still know their way around a creative three-part harmony, and a few little solo moments betray the fact that yes, these are indeed people who know their way around their respective instruments. The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a document of the comfort a brilliant songwriter can feel when he works with the musicians who know him the best.
Shit yeah, it’s cool.