Ben Folds Five ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind' (ImaVeePee/Sony)
Nearly every song on “The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” the first album by Ben Folds Five in 13 years, illustrates the subtle but important differences between a Ben Folds solo album and what the pianist and songwriter does with his newly reunited partners, drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge. Classical concertos and the early work of Elton John figure heavily in Folds' solo work, but with Sledge's fuzz-bomb bass and Jessee's spacious pop sensibilities on board, the songs flow on the power of Burt Bacharach-style chord changes and a different, more frenetic energy. His novelist's eye for detail and indie comic's vocabulary ensure that Folds is always the dominant personality, but “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” would sound radically different without everyone on board.
“The Life of the Mind” gets its punches in early and frequently, beginning with “Erase Me,” a nasty breakup song punctuated by Sledge and Jessee's harmonies and Folds' lacerating lyrics: “What was our home? Paper, not stone, a lean-to at most/And when you pulled your half away, gravity won.” The trio accelerates on “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” a hard-swinging pop track about a “frenemy” with a comet-like ability to regularly reappear, and then mellows with “Sky High,” featuring Jessee-penned lyrics and airy, 10cc-style background vocals. While the title track is a product of Folds' recent collaboration with novelist Nick Hornby, the contribution of Jessee and Sledge gives the song an adrenaline surge that surpasses most of Hornby and Folds' 2010 album, “Lonely Avenue.”
After two more up-tempo songs, including the single “Do It Anyway” and “Draw a Crowd,” a hilarious track about a failed balladeer (“So smooth you can hear the beard”), “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” moves into softer territory, closing big with “Thank You for Breaking My Heart,” which begins with Folds solo, but opens up when Sledge's bass drops a few depth charges and choirboy harmonies swaddle Folds' plaintive lead. It is a somber ending, but “Breaking My Heart” offers a statement both on the improved musicianship and important contributions of all three members of Ben Folds Five.
— George Lang