Sometimes in life dreams and wishes do come true. Some of them are due to hard work and diligence on the part of yourself, and others are due to circumstances beyond your control. Whatever the reason, and however it comes about, the moment that a dream comes true is a very special one.
For the better part of the last 12 years I have hoped that Ben Folds Five would get back together and put out a new album. For most of that time, I never thought they would. Hope was rekindled in 2008 when the band performed a one-off reunion show, and rumors were flying that there was talk of a full-blown tour, as well as a possibility of a new album. Neither of those came to fruition and though the chance of my wish becoming a reality seemed slightly more possible, it still seemed unlikely.
All of that changed when it became known that BF5 had gotten back together to record three “new” songs for Ben Folds’ retrospective album (one of the songs was actually written in 2000 and was slated for an album that was never finished). Folds then said that the sessions went so well that there were tentative plans to record a full album and then start touring afterwards. A few months later, there was confirmation that the band was, indeed, in the studio working on new material.
And here it is.
The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, the fourth album from Ben Folds Five, and the first in thirteen years, officially releases on September 18th, but digital copies were sent to everyone who donated money to the band’s PledgeMusic.com fundraising campaign on September 12th. Being one of those people, I have been able to listen to and process the album for the last four days. Since I have been a fervent fan of Ben Folds Five since 1997, I had hopes and expectations for this record that would potentially (and almost did) make me not like this album. So, in order for me to accurately review it, I needed take time and let the music really sink in and take the album as its own entity. I needed to constantly remind myself that when I first listened to The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner I was disappointed that it sounded nothing like the band’s first two albums. Yet, after a short time, I loved the record and recognized it as a Ben Folds Five album. Even though the mental hurdles would be higher (Would this sound like more recent Ben Folds solo stuff? Would it just suck?), I knew I had to keep an open mind so that I would not sabotage my feelings and ruin a very important moment for me. At the same time, I did not want to blindly love the album just because it was a new record from my favorite band. It has been a few days and I have listened to the new album a handful of times, as well as having seen the band perform some of the new songs live at their recent Central Park concert, and I believe that I can now give a fairly accurate review of the album.
On first listen, the album sounded nothing like any of the band’s previous records, and much closer to Ben Folds’ more recent solo material. This is likely due to the fact that Folds’ voice sounds different than it did 13 years ago and that his writing style has changed over that same amount of time. As I continued to listen to the album again, however, little things started to appear that told me that this was, in fact, a Ben Folds Five record. The first, and most prominent, of which is the presence of Robert Sledge’s fuzz bass. While there was fuzz bass on some of Folds’ solo work, nothing ever sounded like what Sledge produces. The second thing was the sound and style of vocal harmonies that were unique to band. Again, these types of harmonies were attempted on Folds’ solo material, and sometimes incredibly well done, but the sound of Folds, Sledge, and drummer Darren Jessee harmonizing is something that is uniquely gorgeous. Lastly, the music sounds like it was written and recorded by a band, rather than a solo artist with their backing band and/or session players. It may be subtle, but there is a significant difference between the two situations. Rather than supporting the main artist and working within the vision they have, (many) bands will work together to craft songs, meaning that all members are giving musical input to each song. It also means they are allowed to play the way they want to play, rather than take direction from one person. (If this doesn’t make sense watch this video of The Beatles as they are on the brink of breaking up.)
So with all of this in mind, I am going to break down the album, song by song. I know it’s going to be a lot to read, but if you know me, you know I need to do this. Here we go…
1. “Erase Me” – This is not the type of song I would have anticipated opening the album. It opens aggressively with heavy piano, fuzz bass, and pounding drums, seemingly announcing that the band is back, but then drops into a more subdued feel during the verses, before going back to an aggressive feel during the chorus. It has all of the aforementioned elements that make it a BF5 song, but it’s a little chaotic. I love the music in this song, especially the verses, but the lyrics and vocal melody of the chorus lack in quality, sounding more like something from Folds’ album Way To Normal, rather than anything Ben Folds Five has put out. Yet, it’s not a bad song, and the harmonized vocal hits in the bridge remind me of something The Beatles would’ve done in the late ‘60s. I actually enjoyed this song more in concert than on record, but I still find myself rocking out to it no matter where I am listening.
2. “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” – Now this is what I was expecting to hear. Opening with soaring vocal harmonies, this song is classic Ben Folds Five. The music is fantastic, and the musical interplay between the three of them is exquisite. Darren Jessee’s drumming is steady and compotent, and his fills are in classic form. Robert Sledge is on top of his game throughout the entire song. His bass lines are simply fantastic, and his solo is everything you’d hope it would be, full of fuzz and killer melodic lines. Though musically Folds takes more of a back seat, his lyrics are in vintage form, and his vocal melodies are great. The choruses on this song are wonderful, filled with the aforementioned vocal harmonies and tons of energy. But it’s the solo section that is best part of the song. Sledge’s solo, as I just stated, is fantastic, while Folds’ solo, though just pounding chords, is accompanied by the rhythm section in a way that you can’t not know that this is Ben Folds Five. This song is not only great, but epitomizes what this band has always been about, and easily my favorite on the album.
3. “Sky High” – Written by drummer Darren Jessee, this song is just an absolutely gorgeous piece of music. Though his writing style is definitely different than Folds’, this song is not out of place in the slightest (Jessee did write or co-write several other Ben Folds Five songs). Having a very laid back vibe, all three musicians scale back their intensity, and work together to interlay each of their parts in order to craft a beautiful musical landscape. The production on this song is pretty perfect, having just enough reverb and synthesized sounds to produce an ethereal ambiance, all of which is aided by the hauntingly beautiful background vocals. Definitely one of the best tracks on the album.
4. “The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind” – With lyrics written by Nick Hornby (held over from Lonely Avenue), the band is able to craft some fantastic music to bring this song to life. The background vocals, once again, are fantastic, and musically the song just aggressively drives from the get go, only scaling back during the bridge. A solid track, to say the least. Make sure to take note of the bass lines, they are hidden gems.
5. “On Being Frank” – Written from the (perceived) perspective of Frank Sinatra’s manager after he died, this song is an interesting one. I say this not because the song is weird or all over the place, but because it sounds like it could (should?) be a song from a musical, which is very un-Ben Folds Five. Still, it’s a good, enjoyable song, though nothing to go crazy over.
6. “Draw A Crowd” – It took me a while to really like this song, mainly because the song, particularly the chorus, sounds like a mix between Folds’ “There’s Always Someone Cooler Than You” and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth.” This was kind of annoying at first, but after getting over that and the fact that lyrics to the chorus are super sophomoric (the same way that a lot of Way To Normal was, which is not a good thing), I’ve come to really enjoy this song. Musically, it’s great and super fun, making you just want to get up and dance around, and though I have no idea what this song is really about (I mean what does, “So smooth you can hear the beard,” really mean?) the chorus is super catchy. Don’t be surprised if you, too, just want to sing, “If you can’t draw a crowd, Draw dicks on the wall,” over and over again.
7. “Do It Anyway” – This was the first song to be released from the album, being leaked by the band back in May, and really scared me when I heard it. I say this, because by itself, this song sounded nothing like Ben Folds Five, and more like the Ben Folds solo material that I was never a fan of. I hated listening to it, and actually refused to until I received the album in full. Now hearing it in context of the album, I enjoy this song much more, and have been able to hear how intricate and complicated some of the music actually is, rather that just the two-step drums, quarter-note bass lines, and quasi-cheesey chorus. It’s a fun song (particularly live), with some meaningful lyrics, and sounds more and more like Ben Folds Five after every listen. Still not my favorite, but an enjoyable song, to say the least.
8. “Hold That Thought” – Like, “Draw A Crowd,” all I could hear when I listened to this song the first time was another song. This time it was “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” by Counting Crows, and while I enjoy that song a lot, it’s still hard to get over this notion. Like “Mrs. Potter,” this song is solid, and while there is nothing really that stands out, musically or lyrically, it’s a nice one to listen to. Actually, I take that back, the musical interlude near the end of the song is quite beautiful.
9. “Away When You Were Here” – This is just a super solid song, with nothing really amazing about it, but nothing bad in any way. It’s really just an enjoyable song to listen to. Also, I love the tack piano solo.
10. “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” – There was no way a Ben Folds Five wouldn’t close with a ballad. Even though it starts eerily similar to “Boxing” (the closing track on Ben Folds Five), there is no denying that this song is quite lovely, having some really elegant music and vocal harmonies. Folds’ voice sounds fantastic, and seems to effortlessly flow throughout the entirety of the song. The arrangement and production is pretty masterful, as well, having a very cinematic feel, particularly with the range of emotion and dynamics throughout. It’s a great way to close the album, and one its better songs.
Overall, this an incredibly solid album. There are no truly weak songs, and the best songs, “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” and “Sky High,” are some of the best I’ve heard from the band (which is saying something). Do I still wonder what this album would’ve sounded like if Caleb Southern, the man who produced their other three studio albums, had produced it? Of course, but I am more than happy with what I have heard on this record. (Actually, Southern was asked by the band to produce the record, but is working on his Doctorate degree in Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech so he declined the offer.) This album shows that the three members of Ben Folds Five still have the musical connection they need to create the music that so many people fell in love with over a decade ago. Add this to the fact that they are still an amazing live band, and you can understand why I am excited about what the future might hold for my favorite band. The question is, will this be the last Ben Folds Five album, or is this just the beginning of a new era for the band?