Among those familiar with the output of Ben Folds, one thing is taken for fact, which is his music has never been quite the same since parting ways with Ben Folds Five bandmates, Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee. At best, the fans I’ve encountered consider his solo work inconsistent.
Looking at his sales figures, though, no one would guess it. With Way to Normal, his second to most recent solo record, he landed his highest chart position yet, climbing all the way up to #11 in just its first week of release. Funnily enough, it also brought with it perhaps the most detractors of any of his records. Based on what I’ve heard, from friends and fellow Ben Folds fans, the consensus is it’s among his worst, if not the worst.
Then again, discrepancies between sales figures and reception are commonplace. Many would argue that there’s an almost inverse ratio between the two, with the least talented raking in the most money. That, however, is an argument for a different day.
What is important here is that Ben Folds was having no trouble getting by without his former bandmates, thus meaning a reunion wasn’t financially necessary. Not that he could’ve thought it would be a big seller, seeing as a general lack of profit was what caused the band to go their separate ways in the first place. No, this get together of old friends wasn’t driven by greed.
Rather, the three of them were motivated by the more honest desire of rekindling what’d once been lost. This coming after they’d previously reunited temporarily to record three tracks for The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective the year before.
It’s rare that a musician, or group of musicians, does it just for the music and the camaraderie. Especially in popular music today, a landscape populated with countless over-produced, mass-marketed cash-grabs. Because of that, it’s refreshing to see these three so committed to putting out a record not just for their fans, but for themselves as well.
Admirable as that may be, though, what matters most of all is whether or not it works, whether the collaborative efforts of Folds, Sledge, and Jessee can still hit that sweet spot fans remember so fondly. They needn’t worry, however, because The Sound of the Life of the Mind is every bit an example of those qualities that are distinctly a part of the Ben Folds Five sound.
To start, there’s “Erase Me,” which tops the list in terms of complexity. While it’s relatively understated at the beginning, the vocals from all those involved giving it a certain layered effect, it picks up significantly, in terms of both tempo and complexity, as it enters the first chorus and it never looks back.
The further into the song one gets, the more chaos is introduced into the equation. Except, throughout, there remains an underlying structure that a discerning listener should be capable of picking out. A perfect example of this is the piano solo which closes out the song. Some may hear uncontrolled spontaneity, but there exists still a certain level of control, and Folds does stay tethered for the duration to an underlying structure, loose though it may be.
From there, the record settles down with “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” contrasting the discordancy of the first song with a simpler, and much more readily apparent focus. There remains some of the previous discordancy, displayed by the vocal harmonies which come in during the chorus, sounding slightly off yet not out of place, yet it’s relegated to the background. The same cannot be said, though, of any of the band members, each one of them getting a chance to put on a show. But it’s Folds himself that stands out the most. While his vocals are in top form from start to finish, this song represents perhaps the brightest of his respective highlights.
Next up is the lushest entry on the record, “Sky High,” a song whose title could not be more fitting, the trio lending it an otherworldly feel, their background vocals used almost as a keyboard patch, and the vocal harmonies sounding similar to fast-returned echoes. It all makes for a beautifully understated piece.
Then, the band picks up the pace with the title song, “The Sound of the Life of the Mind.” What keeps it from being too jarring a transition, though, is the manner in which they build it up, allowing Folds’ piano playing to carry it up bit by bit. Helping, as well, are Nick Hornby’s lyrics. Lonely Avenue isn’t one of Folds’ most popular releases, but the ongoing collaboration between the Folds and Hornby that it seems to have inspired is a welcome one. He fits in so well with their aesthetic that they should possibly consider bringing him in as a proper member, thus bringing the band one step closer to the “five” their name oddly refers to.
After that is “On Being Frank” which, together with, “Hold That Thought,” bears a great resemblance to his solo work. By that, I mean it’s a case where Jessee and Sledge take a backseat, giving Folds free reign to put his stamp on the song. They’re not completely absent, mind you, though they are mostly relegated to keeping the rhythm going. Clearly, the focus is on Folds and, more specifically, his vocals. Whether that’s a positive or a negative, however, depends on what your stance is on his solo work.
Following that is “Draw a Crowd,” sure to become a crowd-pleaser in the same vein as “One Angry Dwarfs and 200 Solemn Faces.” Between its catchy chorus (“if you’re feeling small, and can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall”), and generally fun feel, this could very well be the standout of the album. At least it is for me.
I also wonder why the band went with “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” a mouthful, over this for the name of the record. More than any other song on it, “Draw a Crowd” has a sound that I feel goes hand-in-hand with the cover. Listening to it to it feels akin to being submersed underwater, and there’s a vaguely robotic sound to the whole thing, as well. Plus, I just don’t think “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” is a particularly good name for a record. It’s fine for a song, but too wordy for anything else.
Keeping things up-tempo, “Do It Anyway,” the first single, kicks off the latter half of the record with gusto, never once pausing for more than a second to let up. Like the song that came before it, “Do It Anyway” is poised to become a fan favorite, helped in part by its wonderfully charming music video, which features Anna Kendrick, Rob Corddry, and, best of all, the members of the muppet group Fraggle Rock.
Now comes the second song to bring to mind Folds’ solo work, and easily the slightest song on the record, “Hold That Thought.” Whereas Jessee and Sledge were still somewhat present in “On Being Frank,” they are MIA for the most part here. That being said, it works, because its beauty is in just how simplified its sound is.
Picking things up a smidge is “Away When You Were Here,” Folds’ second brightest moment vocally. Not unlike the two songs which preceded it, it too is on the simpler side, but the strings, and Jessee’s just-enough drumming make it work.
Lastly, there’s “Thank You for Breaking My Heart,” which starts out continuing the trend of the past three songs, only piano and vocals at the beginning, but adds weight and power as it moves forward using the bass and drums to emphasize Folds’ words.
Fitting they end on that, I think, since it could be said to act as a microcosm of the record as a whole. It’s not quite the musical statement Lonely Avenue was, but it never fancied itself as that. With this record, Ben Folds, along with Darren Jesse and Robert Sledge, went back to basics and, at the same time, punctuated it with more than a couple of moments to complexity. In short, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a release as solid as the three musicians behind it who make up the band known as Ben Folds Five. What more could one expect?