ALBUM REVIEW: Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind

ben folds five the sound of the life of the mind
Reunions: the worst you can expect is that they’re kind of sad to start with, then downright depressing in their inevitable ending (see: the recent debacle surrounding the end of the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary tour). The best is that they’ll play some pretty good shows, and never release any substantial new material (see: Pixies, Blur).
Ben Folds Five have always existed outside of the norm – sort of. In the mid-90s alternative landscape that was frequented by the likes of Pavement, their sardonic and self-aware songwriting was not so against the grain; the fact that it was backed by piano, bass and drums, however, was, Folds himself describing their sound as “punk rock for sissies”.
This album too stands out from their peers. Rather than reverting to type – although there’s still plenty of choice lines, well-drawn characters and fuzzy basslines – the band acknowledge the intervening years, resulting in an album which feels its age. The songs on ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’ are as poignant as they are funny, as affecting as they are catchy – and there’s a noticeable preoccupation with age, failure and death.
There’s ‘Away When You Were Here’, a eulogy to Folds’ father; ‘Draw A Crowd’, the lounge-singer equivalent of the Replacements’ ‘Left of the Dial’ (with a snottier chorus: “If you’re feeling small / And you can’t draw a crowd / Draw dicks on the wall); and the lush ‘Sky High’, with lyrics by drummer Darren Jesse, is more impressionistic with its evocation of nostalgia and longing.
Fortunately it appears that an album so focussed on the subjects of failure, irrelevancy and expiration is an unqualified success, and one full of vitality and life. Much like the band’s former swansong, ‘The Unauthorised Biography of Reinhold Messner’, the sombre tone is at time belied by the epic, upbeat arrangements, most notably on ‘Draw A Crowd’ and ‘Michael Praytor, Five Years Later’, which themselves are at odds with the quirky, lo-fi piano jams of their self-titled début and the iconic ‘Whatever and Ever Amen’.
Because that’s not the band they are anymore, and they know it: they’re 46, not 26. It’s the same Ben Folds Five you know and love – sarcasm undercut by sweet harmonies, Robert Sledge’s bass more vital and throbbing than indie rock usually manages to reach, Darren Jesse’s drumming both jazzy and powerful – but aged a few years.

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