‘Life of the Mind’: ‘Ben’ there, done that
Ben Folds is a busy guy. He has sat alongside fellow precocious pianist Sara Bareilles as a judge on NBC’s The Sing-Off. He has shared the microphone with William Shatner. He has collaborated with novelist Nick Hornby on a stopgap EP and has covered everyone from Elton John to Dr. Dre.
Aside from putting a different spin on classic tunes, the bespectacled multi-instrumentalist also landed on the charts in the late nineties with the moody “Brick” (off 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen).
The Ben Folds Five — the trio behind that ‘90s hit — was nothing short of eclectic. Formed in college, the three combined elements of jazz, funk and adolescent angst into a genre Folds himself described as “punk rock for sissies.” With a sound centered around piano instead of guitar, the group’s oddness contributed to a relative lack of popularity. After the release of a lackluster disc in 1999 , the Five went their separate ways. Folds, the band’s namesake, went solo — bearing a guitar.
Folds attracted attention across the entertainment industry with his contributions to the family-friendly film Over the Hedge, and his live shows became critically acclaimed for their spontaneity and wit. A star was born, as was the desire to revisit old friends.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the first album from the Five in more than a decade, brings together the ingenious storytelling of the group’s earlier releases with the production and showmanship of Folds’ solo material. The result charms and tantalizes.
The album opens with the theatrical “Erase Me,” a song that sets cloying hints of hopeless romanticism (a Five mainstay) against a boisterous backdrop. “On Being Frank” offers a lens into yet another invented Folds persona. Unfortunately, Folds hasn’t matured as a lyricist, and despite being no slouch on the keys, his tale falls flat.
The lead single “Do It Anyway” borrows from the circus-tent playbook of genre-benders Panic! at the Disco. Its inclusion among more introspective fare (the serene soundscape “Sky High” could fit on any Bruce Hornsby record) and static character sketches (“Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”) is baffling. “Hold That Thought” sails the album back into calmer waters, with a delectable falsetto akin to Paul Simon.
The reunion disc closes with two heartfelt ballads. With a melody accessible to Maroon 5 fans, “Away When You Were Here” has a paradoxical title and delves into trite subject matter. It waxes needlessly overdramatic. The shamelessly direct closing track “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” highlights the sad but true fact that despite his chops as a piano-pounder, Folds retreads the same shallow topical waters as his contemporaries.
In short, this album is both as safe and saccharine as Folds’ solo material and as jaunty as previous full-band efforts. But it is not as much a step forward as it a revisiting of the band’s former glories.