Let’s face it: no act out there sounds quite like Ben Folds Five—except, perhaps, for Ben Folds without the “Five.” Let’s just say if indie rock hooked up with jazz/lounge, BFF is the love child.
Although Mr. Folds has been anything but inactive since BFF initially called it quits in 2000 (he’s released a full array of solo records and other experimental collaborations), The Sound Of the Life Of the Mind is the first official release from Ben Folds Five in well over a decade—and I have to say, it’s good to have them back.
One of the cool things about carving out a niche sound and style for yourself is you can do pretty much whatever the hell you want, and nobody can really judge it because there isn’t anything to measure it against. Suffice it to say that there aren’t too many songwriters out there who can get away with rhyming “circle” with “Studs Terkel” without it sounding extremely cheesy. But the thing about Folds is that cheesy is part of his persona. He’s the guy who fits into absolutely no boxes, the middle-aged geek with his profanity-laced tongue ever lodged in his cheek, who also happens to rip on the piano so well it’s impossible not to take him seriously. So he can get away with stuff that other musicians and songwriters can’t—and not only do we give him a pass, we love him for it.
And so, The Sound Of the Life Of the Mind is predictably rife with the diverse sonic and lyrical imagery we’ve now come to expect from Mr. Folds—and the reassembling of the “Five” makes it all that much more impactful. He can sing lyrics like “If you’re feeling small / And if you can’t draw a crowd / Draw dicks on the wall” (“Draw a Crowd”), then turn around and sing touching emotional tunes like “Away When You Were Here” about a father who died, or encourage abandoned risk taking with “Do It Anyway.” For anyone else, this disparity would be critiqued as fragmented, even bipolar. But this is Ben Folds, y’all. If he didn’t cover this much creative territory in one album, we wouldn’t believe him.
Is there anything groundbreaking about this album? Again, it’s hard to gauge, because Folds has an established reputation for pushing creative boundaries while remaining gleefully accessible. In one sense, it breaks ground in that every song of Ben Folds kind of feels fresh and new; on the other, The Sound Of the Life Of the Mind is made up of the same kind of no-boundaries creativity Ben Folds is known for. For someone else, this would be groundbreaking, but for Ben Folds Five, it’s par for the course.
So let’s just say BFF is back, they made a great record, and we’re glad about it.