TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 31 December 2012
It'd been quite a while since I'd heard The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind from start to finish, so, as it has been five years since its release, I thought it was about time I relistened to the album and gave it a bit more of my time. Back in 2012, I'd been a small part of the PledgeMusic campaign to help make this album a reality (hundreds, if not thousands, of people also pledged) and had been almost giddy with anticipation to hear Ben Folds Five back together again. Back in the mid-nineties when Ben Folds Five released their eponymous debut, it quickly became one of my very favourite albums of all time and has remained so ever since. Their follow-up albums were also exceptionally good, but, for one reason or another, the threesome broke up after their third record didn't perform well, commercially, and Ben Folds went solo, releasing the first album of his own, Rockin' The Suburbs, in 2001. That record went a long way to soothing my anguish after the “Five” split up, as, because I love it so immensely, I often cite it as my very favourite album of all time, but all three of the Ben Folds Five albums remained very special to me indeed. Fast forward to 2011, and Ben released a retrospective of his career, including three new songs which featured his old bandmates Darren Jesse and Robert Sledge (yes, for those who didn't know, there only ever was three members of Ben Folds Five). These sessions went so well, plans for a new albums were hatched and they soon returned to the studio to record Ben Folds Five's fourth long player in the January and February of 2012.
The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is quite different to Ben Folds Five's other albums, as it is notably less immediately accessible (with the exception of a couple of tracks); it's the kind of record you need to listen to a lot to thoroughly appreciate, yet it also retains the sound and the spirit of the band, despite having to change producers (their first choice of producer, Caleb Southern, who had produced all of their other albums was unavailable, so Guster's Joe Pisapia stepped in to do an admirable job). There are so many excellent songs on the rejuvenated threesome's fourth record: Erase Me is a mighty opening track, a dramatic, minor key thunderstorm of a song, whereas Michael Praytor, Five Years Later is more the kind of song you'd expect from Ben Folds Five, a real key-hammering rocker, resplendent with some glorious harmonies and a joyous chorus. The piano performance and accompanying strings on On Being Frank are beautiful, reminiscent of Songs For Silverman era arrangements, and Draw A Crowd is, along with Michael Praytor, the most commercial, immediately catchy composition on the album, featuring a great piano riff and a thunderous performance from the trio. Do It Anyway sees Ben illustrating the song with a frantic, busy musical pattern; his playing is probably the most inspired on this album since the aforementioned second solo album, Songs For Silverman (2005) and the album closer, Thank You For Breaking My Heart is a beautiful, gentle composition, not quite in the league of The Luckiest (then again, what is?), but it's simplicity is heart-warming and captivating.
I wouldn't say there was such a thing as a bad or unenjoyable song on this album, but the Nick Hornby lyrics on the title track aren't particularly great (probably the only time when the album lyrically misfires and it isn't Folds' fault) and it feels as if the music is trying a little too hard to be bombastic and match the intensity of the words. It's still pretty decent, though. There are a couple of fairly enjoyable, if unspectacular, songs on the album too (Sky High, Hold That Thought, Away When You Were Here), which make this release not entirely great, but even the lesser tracks are easy to listen to and appreciate. If I'm completely honest, at the time The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind was released, it was a welcome return to form for Folds at a point when, after Way To Normal and Lonely Avenue, I was feeling that his work had been lacking inspiration and the spark of genius that had attracted me to his music in the first place. There were tracks on both albums that suggested he still had the talent there burning away, but the albums, on the whole, had been less than impressive, certainly to me.
Ben Folds Five's fourth album provided a timely remember of the band's importance to me and of Folds' immense talent; in fact, since this project, Ben's work has been nothing other than excellent, so the retrospective compilation and this album have been an effective and welcome catalyst in Folds rediscovering his very special creative ability. It hadn't gone far, of course, but this record, for me, is where Ben's music started to get great again, and it's absolutely wonderful to hear, especially in the company of Robert and Darren. Oddly enough, if you asked me to rank the Ben Folds Five albums from most to least favourite, this one would probably come in last, but it's like trying to rank the first four Crowded House albums; they're all fantastic, it's just trying to choose which one is not quite as brilliant as the others. I just hope this isn't the last we've heard of Ben Folds Five, because these three people together have a special chemistry that, frankly, I want to hear much more of.