The breakup of Ben Folds Five in the late 90s always seemed odd to me. The trio was coming off The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Meissner, its most ambitious, accomplished album, and its creative future seemed wide open. There’s been nothing in Ben Folds‘ solo career he couldn’t have done with the Five, with the possible exception of his choral work. As his solo LPs slid further and further into adult contemporary soft rock, the absence of bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jesse was keenly felt. It just goes to show that even if one member is the driving creative force, there’s something to be said for band chemistry.
So I was happy to hear that, spurred by the compilation of a greatest hits record, Folds had reunited with Sledge and Jesse for the trio’s first new LP in over a decade. Now that The Sound of the Life of the Mind is here, it faces expectations that need to be balanced by sober realities – after all, these aren’t the same guys that made Meissner, let alone the self-titled record or Whatever and Ever Amen.
Sure enough, a certain maturity has set it. The bratty bursts of energy and snotty asides are kept in reserve these days, used when necessary, rather than scattered like dandelion seeds across a field. Songs like “On Being Frank” are likely to boast lush string arrangements rather than Jessee’s anarchic drum fills. “Sky High” quickly settles into a dreamy mood evocative of its title, while “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” keeps the heat under the surface at a simmer rather than a boil. None of this is particularly a bad thing, mind you – Fold’s melodies remain strong, if not as over-the-top hooky as they were in the past, and if they take a few repetitions to sink in, that only makes the songs richer over time. The melancholy “Away When You Were Here” and gauzy “Hold That Thought” don’t call attention to themselves, but linger longer in the memory the more time spent with them.
There are still signs of a misspent youth. “Erase Me” may revolve around one of Folds’ most beguiling Bacharachesque melodies, but that doesn’t stop Sledge from injecting a few blasts of fuzz bass or the boys adding a close harmony “What the fuck is this?” during a chorus. Folds still casually knocks out lines like “It’s noisy up there/It rocks like a mother” when describing the title track’s concept, and there aren’t many other folks who would sweetly use “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall” as a ridiculously poppy chorus, as the trio does in “Draw a Crowd.” Then there’s “Do It Anyway,” the first single – its driving piano licks and busy basslines definitely recall the restless Five of old, though the lyrics sound tossed off.
What The Sound of the Life of the Mind boils down to is a reunited band rediscovering its mojo, while applying the lessons learned during the interim. The best thing about musical maturity, in other words.