It’s easy to get the wrong impression about beloved alt-rockers Ben Folds Five, mainly because their often-absurdist exterior masked some of the smartest lyrics of the ’90s. Anyone who delved beyond the group’s singles also realized the emotional depth of its songwriting—and so did anyone who really listened to the band’s somber 1999 swan song, The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner. That last album is a major touchstone on The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, the trio’s first record since reuniting in 2011. Like Messner, Mind is a collection of stately, majestic songs dominated by self-aware songwriting and sharp character sketches.
While many of the band’s previous songs used caricature-like characters for effect (e.g., angry young men, envious slackers, carefree pixie dream girls, clueless boyfriends), Mind’s protagonists are realistic—and acutely aware of their own mortality. The appropriately lounge-like “On Being Frank” is told from the perspective of Sinatra’s tour manager, who’s left bereft of identity once the crooner dies. The brittle “Thank You For Breaking My Heart” is a slow-motion, knife-twisting chronicle about finding out a relationship is over, made all the more poignant due to an unadorned, classical-geared piano line and intricate harmonies seemingly inspired by leader Folds’ love of a cappella. And the lush, string-buoyed “Away When You Were Here” wrestles with letting go of the memories (and the long shadow) of a deceased father.
The unique strain of Ben Folds Five bitterness isn’t absent, though. “Erase Me”—a cabaret-style strut reminiscent of Dresden Dolls—is a scathing song penned by a deranged dumpee who dares an ex to obliterate their happy memories. And even the album’s goofiest song, “Draw A Crowd”—whose mix of electric keyboard and stacked piano chords weirdly recalls Billy Joel’s “Allentown”—has a sardonic core. The tale of a washed-up musician who struggles to come to terms with his obscurity (when feeling ignored, he pulls out the line, “So smooth you can hear the beard!”), “Crowd” features the inimitable chorus refrain: “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall.”
What also makes Mind a bona fide Ben Folds Five record—and not merely a Folds solo vehicle—are the contributions from drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge. Whenever the trio writes together, the resulting music has intangible qualities—mainly jaunty velocity and a jazzy rhythmic core—which sounds uniquely, well, Ben Folds Five. Plus, the harmonies are inimitable: shading Folds on “Do It Anyway,” piping up with dramatic accents on “Erase Me,” or moving the title track’s narrative forward. Jessee also contributes the longing, impressionistic lyrics of “Sky High,” a plush, midtempo song Folds admitted is inspired by 10cc.
And like all Ben Folds Five records, Mind isn’t flawless. The character study “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” about a guy from the past who won’t go away, falls flat. And several songs (mainly the lead single, “Do It Anyway”) are pleasant but not particularly memorable; in addition, the album’s relatively straightforward lyrical style might disappoint anyone hoping for more clever shtick than maudlin honesty. But really, Mind sounds exactly what a mature Ben Folds Five record should sound like: hard-won wisdom and withering observations with an unabashedly sentimental core.