Thirteen years ago Ben Folds Five released their ambitious third album ‘The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner‘ which seemed to suggest a new musical direction for the group; bold, imposing, orchestrated and lacking in obvious ‘commercial’ singles.
It came as some surprise then that 18 months later they chose to break up, albeit amicably, stating that everything musically they could do together as a band had been done.
Since then, Ben Folds has released a steady stream of successful solo albums dusted with Ben Folds Five character but lacking some of the raw, ferocious edge that his old band produced. Like Paul McCartney, Folds is a clever melodicist with an innate ability to play any instrument expertly. But also like Macca, some of his best work materialises when bouncing ideas off equally proficient musicians.
With the exception of 2008’s one-off concert for the Myspace ‘Front to Back’ series, it was not until last year that BFF chose to reconvene in the studio to record three new tracks for inclusion of their career retrospective. This reunion seems to have stoked their collective furnace and the end result is the eagerly awaited ‘The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind‘.
Although the album has close parallels musically to both their debut and ‘Whatever And Ever Amen’ it is, on the whole, less commercial than either. This is not a criticism and it does not apply outright; indeed the infectious, pompous stomping chorus of ‘Erase Me’ is reminiscent of Muse - if Muse had a sense of humour or could play jazz. Tongues are firmly in cheek; made all the more obvious by contrasting tranquil verses of dreamy major 6ths and 7ths. It’s a joy to hear the group’s distinct backing vocals again combined with Folds’ jazz piano flourishes, Jessee’s snare attack and the thrashing of Sledge’s fuzz bass after such a lengthy absence.
Musically the tumbling tones of ‘Hold That Thought’ are a close cousin of ‘Mess’. Lyrics fall from Folds’ lips with Paul Simon-dexterity in what is one of the strongest melodies on the album, and the wordless falsetto middle eight reveals his voice in fine form. The subtle arrangement disguises the structural complexities that lie beneath which has always been a characteristic trait of the band.
Then there’s the pensive pause of Jessee’s ‘Sky High’, which is a welcome addition to the band’s repertoire. Conveying the reflective nature of ‘Brick’ – which he co-wrote with Folds and one of the band’s biggest hits despite its honest theme – repeat listens enhance the tender beauty in its melody, reinforcing the delicate restraint of his image woven lyric.
But ‘The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind’ also has its tired moments. ‘On Being Frank’ and ‘Away When You Were Here’ seem contrived and exhausted – the former sounds like it wants to be ‘The Long and Winding Road’ but fails to achieve it. Both songs boast film score string orchestration aiming to add emotional weight, but when a song is already a sinking ship adding weight will not compensate or provide the desired counterbalance effect. Elton John would probably get away with it, but only because no one under the age of 60 buys his albums.
Even so, these passing moments are compensated by jewels such as ‘Michael Praytor, Five Years Later’ and ‘Do It Anyway’, Folds smashing the keys with a dissonant-elbow to uncover rollicking piano figure. And Sledge’s conventional walking bass line has a sting in its tail when his ‘Big Muff’ is unleashed for the instrumental breakdown – the classic electrifying BFF sound that fans have been longing for.
Perhaps the only drawback with the album, though, is that it doesn’t quite live up to what BFF are capable of. It does sometimes repeat what they have already accomplished; the creative sparks a little less spontaneous.
That said this is a much more mature album for their catalogue; the sound of a group that has grown up – a little older, a little wiser – and is enjoying playing together again. Or maybe this is just their ‘warm-up’ and a calculated build to something more ostentatious, we will just have to wait and see. As Folds once sang “Time takes time you know..”
In the meantime, let’s just be grateful that they are here at all.