Album Review: Ben Folds Five ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’
That’s one heck of a title. It could be interpreted any number of ways, but being that this is a Ben Folds Five record I think the simplest explanation makes the most sense: This is an album of modest expression from a group of people who are both introspective and celebratory about life, and all of the simple things that make those facets worth exploring.
It’s been a long while since the band has been together, and though Ben Folds as a solo artist has kept piano rock alive with several releases and his touring, there is something special about that “Five” tacked on to the end. It does feel a little tacked on. One would imagine that Ben Folds could have made this record completely independently, but the fact that he did it with the band makes it feel that much more warm and inviting. It feels like a group of friends getting together to work and play, and you get to be in that room with them.
‘Erase Me’ opens with measured drama, starting big and heavy and quickly moving to a very tender and soft opening verse. The chorus doubles back into a heavy-footed emotional romp. This is a type of song that few successful musicians would endeavor to create.
Ben Folds is a rare artist able to strike a balance between light and heavy in his music, in both sound and subject matter. At times it seems like a comedy record, while in other moments it is very emotional and meaningful. Importantly, in its darkest moments that sense of humor is still there, and the funny bits aren’t entirely frivolous.
What really stands out is an almost impossible positivity. Even when the context gets to be quite heavy and personal, the perspective being presented is one of zen-like acceptance and hope, always looking forward. On this record Ben Folds sings of lost love, regret and even death, but without ever feeling sorry for himself at all.
The other side of the record plays around a lot more. ‘Michael Praytor, Five Years Later’ is a grand tribute to some guy who you have never heard of, but in the opinion of this band he deserves a song just the same. ‘On Being Frank’ seems to be a story about one of Frank Sinatra’s underlings trying to find purpose in life without his vicarious avatar. ‘Draw A Crowd’ doesn’t require too much interpretation: “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall.”
Ben Folds is not only ridiculous and clever, but a man with an ability to pen songs that are very relatable. If he happens to hit on a subject close to you, it is going to be a lot more elucidating than the top-40 approach to the same story. He approaches songwriting and storytelling in a way that makes sense to normal human people, entirely removed from the usual grandiosity of power ballads and epic anthems. He sings of big and small things alike in exactly the way that most people experience them.
‘Sky High’ is a special song here, starting with ethereal sounds and evoking the feeling of a bright sunrise after a long night. ‘Hold That Thought’ is another that will speak directly to a lot of people, and these will be fan favorites for a long time.
The only problem with this sort of music for some people is that, for example, if one wants emotional music there are certainly deeper places to go. Ben Folds can move you, but if you’re in a frame of mind to be moved you will probably find the other face of this music breaks that mood or feels jarring. It works both ways, because if you just want a good laugh this record will certainly offer some great levity, but all of those tender moments might just bring you down.
Ben Folds might really only appeal to people who specifically find Ben Folds charming, which isn’t really a problem since most people who give him a listen will quickly fall into that camp. It might be a bit of a cult of personality, but there are few personalities better to fall in love with and emulate than the one presented on The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind. It’s an album of great balance, and ultimately a celebration of every single aspect of living.
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Image Courtesy of Sony