Since Ben Folds’ ego apparently decided that his already indulgent band name was precisely one word too long after 1999's underrated ...Reinhold Messner, he’s since softened into a yawning blandness, swiftly shedding relevance until a leak of his most recent solo LP was so poorly received that fans were convinced it simply had to be a joke. (As it turned out, they were right, but the real punch line was yet to come: the real thing turned out to be even weaker than the ‘joke’). The more quasi-mature Folds became, the further away from his artistic or commercial zenith he wandered, and with erstwhile Ben Folds Five members Jessee and Sledge doing whatever the hell they’ve been doing since, a cynic would hardly wonder why the trio felt like it was a good idea to get the band back together, man.
It’d be wrong of me to pretend that the prospect of the Five getting back together didn’t get me excited – and there’s undoubtedly a real twinge to be felt the first time you hear Jessee and Sledge swoop in behind Folds with their unmistakable harmonies: it just feels right. And yes, to answer your only question, there’s material on here which stands shoulder to shoulder with the chemistry of old – the chorus of ‘Draw A Crowd’ is as irresistibly carefree as it is melodically robust, while the talky ‘Do It Anyway’ finally sees Folds integrate himself into an ensemble of equally weighted players for the first time in many self-centred years – Sledge’s fuzzy bass wandering under the keys with Jesse's loose stomp; Folds providing the sort of restless one-off flourishes that he used to deliver so well (just listen to how he wanders off to some sassy jazz trills for just one line of the second verse – responding to the jam, sounding, at long last, again part of a band).
But sadly, the album at large is plagued by many of the things which have seeped into Folds’ sound over the last ten years: the seriousness, the restraint, and the descent into middle age. Put bluntly, the Five sound old here, a little out of touch and, more damagingly, far too restful. One of BFF’s greatest legacies was to have excavated the piano as the rock instrument that it both can be and should be. Folds has since spent a decade abandoning that repositioning of the ivories, dragging his sound towards a Radio 2 flavoured conventionality, and unfortunately even the reunion of the trio does far too little to rekindle the old energy. While his snotty punkrock snarl often led to uncomfortably juvenile bitterness (“give me my money back, you bitch”) it’s nevertheless easy to romanticise and justify all that when faced with the the nothing-is-happening balladry of tracks like ‘Sky High’). You can almost see Sledge’s eyelids drooping.
But for all his misguided mellowing of both sound and outlook, Folds has never been accused of being unable to turn a hook, and Sound Of The Life Of The Mind isn’t going to begin that particular backlash, nor is it going to wholeheartedly disappoint those who wanted their Five nostalgia itch scratched. But sadly, perhaps even inevitably, it’s a reunion which is ultimately infected by everything there is to lament about Folds’ ten year solo career, and – despite bringing Sledge and Jessee back into the groove – continues Folds’ particularly unwelcome insistence on putting himself more and more squarely in the centre of the arrangements, even as his song writing and piano playing becomes more and more pedestrian.
6Russell Warfield's Score