Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind

After a hiatus that spanned a dozen years, Ben Folds Five is back. Of course, Ben Folds himself never really went away – starting with the brilliant Rockin’ the Suburbs in 2001, he released a series of solo records and side-projects that, beginning from that lofty point, seemed to offer increasingly diminishing returns1 while his public profile managed to grow and grow and grow until he was suddenly co-hosting a network television show with Nick Lachey [record screech]. The show was, admittedly, a singing competition wherein Ben’s musical acumen gave his presence weight…but at the same time this was a guy whose claim to fame was a hit single about a very real high school abortion.2  Ben Folds has had a strange career arc, I guess is what I’m saying. And now, after all the personal3 and professional4 ups and downs of that last decade-plus, he’s back where it all started: with Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge in Ben Folds Five. And believe it or not, with 2012’s The Sound of the Life of the Mind, Ben Folds Five has put out one of the finer reunited efforts in this, The Age of the Reunion Album.

The Sound of the Life of the Mind immediately distances itself from the processed and overproduced vibe of the last few Ben Folds solo albums, beginning with two hallmark Ben Folds Five sounds: the crash of a fist slamming into piano keys and a gloriously distorted bass line. Album opener ‘Erase Me’ starts off with those frenetic staples before sliding into a delicate verse. The song then proceeds to alternate between those two very opposed sounds to great effect and, its needlessly long bridge aside, does an excellent job of showcasing the elements of Ben Folds Five with which The Sound of the Life of the Mind is filled: masterful piano work, three part harmonies, naked melodies, that aforementioned trademark distorted bass sound, and lyrics that range from the poignant to the purposefully outrageous, are all expertly employed to deliver the uniquely quirky sound that made Ben Folds Five a cult favorite.

Part of the allure of Ben Folds over the years has been his fantastic live performances and it’s clear that this new material will be able to continue his grand tradition of energetic concerts. The record’s first single, ‘Do It Anyway,’ with its screaming piano line, chorus of novelty talk-singing, and impassioned vocal shrieks is clearly meant for the stage. The album’s title track, with lyrics penned by author Nick Hornby,5 also seems destined to be a crowd favorite. A song about the difficulties of being a nerd (read: everyone in the crowd at a Ben Folds Five concert), ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’ is both endearing and goofy. It’s driven musically by an effectively simple verse and a powerful key change preceding the chorus, while its lyrics speak to the bookworm in all of us.6 Meanwhile, ‘On Being Frank,’ which by all indications is about the one and only Frank Sinatra, evokes the crooner-like nature of that icon to call to mind a time long before a bevy of multimedia options eliminated the wall between artists and fans, a time when live performances were still the best way to know our heroes. With the heavy role that the string arrangement plays in ‘On Being Frank,’ I’m curious to hear how Ben Folds Five are performing it in concert (assuming they’re performing it at all).

I’m also very curious to see ‘Draw A Crowd’ performed in concert, though for two very different reasons. The first and simplest: musically, it’s pretty clear that this should be the primary single on The Sound of the Life of the Mind – ‘Draw A Crowd’ is a fantastic song with great rhythm, tremendous hooks throughout, and dynamics that allow the verses and bridge to be more than satisfying while ensuring that the chorus and outro are the climactic focal points of the song (so, the exact set-up of a successful single). The second reason I’d like to see this song performed in person is for a chance of hearing Mr. Folds grace us with some explanation of what are clearly numerous inside jokes throughout the song. In a song made of several disparate lines that seem to have little connection to one another, it’s tough to tell exactly what Folds is hoping we’ll take away from it all. Some of the song’s jokes are accessible enough for the outsider (“All I wanted was to be Stevie Wonder, but I’ve got to settle for this vanilla thunder.”) but some need further explanation (“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!”). And while I can hazard a guess as to the chorus’s meaning, I’ll just give you a quote and let you take from it what you will (with some context): “If you can’t draw a crowd, settle for what you can draw…If you’re feeling small and you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on a wall.”7

But even in their quirkiness, the Five have matured over the last decade. ‘Brick’ was not the only emotionally heavy song of their earlier incarnation,8 but even the seemingly light-hearted moments of this new Ben Folds Five seem to have more significant undertones. Both ‘Erase Me’ and ‘Michael Praytor, Five Years Later’ hide serious messages beneath a veneer of fun and nonchalance: both songs contain thoughtful lyrics about middle-aged men whose lives have not gone as they intended. Meanwhile ‘Sky High’, ‘Away When You Were Here’, and ‘Thank You for Breaking My Heart’ are all beautiful tracks9 that feature some of Folds’ most touching lyrics. ‘Away When You Were Here’ is a particularly powerful account of coping with a father’s death; the lyrics are handled with a graceful wisdom and the upbeat instrumentation keeps things from drowning in melancholia – in fact, I’d argue that in conjunction with its lyrics, this song’s instrumentation requires that its lasting memory is one of resolute hope.

Neither sad nor particularly hopeful, but rather peaceful, is ‘Hold That Thought’ – the song that contains the finest moment of The Sound of the Life of the Mind. The song itself is built upon gently pattering drums, a softly rolling piano line, and fantastically harmonized vocals. Lyrically, it’s the simplest chorus you could imagine (“Ooooo-ooooooo-oooo-oooo-ooo-ooo”) and though the verses are sparse, they are – like most all the lyrics on this record – very strong. At the outset of the second verse, Folds delivers an absolute beauty (both lyrically and musically) that does an admirable job of summarizing the melodic, heartfelt, and witty vein that runs throughout The Sound of the Life of the Mind: “I was shown the 36 ways I’m not available on a simple, easy chart. Later on, that evening on a beach in Santa Monica, it was a very risky start. Suppose the stupid chart is right, in a year will you still feel the same way?” The real beauty of that passage is threefold. First, the arrangement: the instrumentation is driving, the melody is solid and the harmony tight. Second, the lyrical material: the preposterous nature of being presented with a chart containing the 36 flaws of your personality is hilarious, but the following lines admirably elucidate the difficulties of starting a relationship, especially the feeling of doubt that can linger if you feel that you are an imperfect person (perhaps one with 36 chartable flaws). And last we come to the delivery: when Folds sings “Suppose the stupid chart is right” you can almost hear the derision in his voice at the idea of such a chart but also, and equally importantly, you can hear the acknowledgement that this dumb chart is not without basis – he knows he is a flawed individual. It’s a fantastic moment all around.

Given the length of time since the last entry from Ben Folds Five, and the inherent growth of the band’s members since then, it’s difficult to measure The Sound of the Life of the Mind against the band’s elder entries. I’m not sure where exactly it measures up against the masterpieces that are Whatever and Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, but I’m not entirely sure that this matters. The Sound of the Life of the Mind is an album worth hearing. We’re a long ways from Messner‘s 1999 release date and, today, at this moment in time, this seems like the right sound for Ben Folds Five. I’m glad we have this album, and I’m glad we have Ben Folds Five back.

Footnotes

1. While a lot of his work after Rockin’ the Suburbs didn’t cut it for me, I’m not implying that everything after it was garbage. Among the Folds’ works that I’ve enjoyed since Rockin’ the Suburbs are the Sunny 16 EP (which had two great tracks in ‘There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You’ and ‘All You Can Eat’), the glorious ‘Just Pretend’ from his side project The Bens (with Ben Lee and Ben Kweller – I always thought they should have dragged Ben Gibbard into that too), and songs like ‘Bastard,’ ‘Landed,’ and ‘Trusted’ from Songs for Silverman.

2. What was going on in the ’90s where this song could be a hit?! Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing song. But a hit single? It’s a musically and lyrically depressing account of high school abortion! America, you are a strange broad.

3. Four failed marriages.

4Way to Normal is clocking in at an abysmal 62% on Metacritic right now.

5. Hornby and Folds previously worked together on 2010’s Lonely Avenue, an album for which Hornby wrote all the lyrics.

6. Lines like “Some of the girls are down at the mall, Justine’s got cherry cola and scotch…but Sara, well, she just can’t bear the stupidity, the boredom, the grind. She stays at school so she can hear the sound of the life of the mind” are endearingly bookish, with lines like “Rosa Parks and DNA, Joan of Arc and JFK!” being somewhat goofier (and vaguely ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’-ish).

7. This doesn’t even take into account a clearly political line from early in the song, when Folds sings, “A row of flags hanging behind me. A garden of mics and questions and photo-flashes blind me. And I’m so high, I can’t recall my statements. I only know I made them because my face vibrated.” It’s all very humorous and interesting. And confusing.

8. ‘Evaporated’, ‘Mess’, and ‘Missing the War’ all come to mind as additional examples of Ben Folds Five’s serious moments.

9. ‘Sky High’ is serenely so; ‘Away When You Were Here’ is both heartbreaking and optimistically so; while ‘Thank You for Breaking My Heart’ is depressingly so.


Banner image taken from RedOvercoat.com


This post originally appeared at Type In Stereo.

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