Ben Folds Five: The Sound of the Life of the Mind (2012)
A quick scan of the KMA archives suggests that I haven’t posted an actual album review in two and a half years. It’s only fitting, then, that when I finally do write one up, it’s for an album that came out months ago. Of course, it’s also for a record that took months longer to get shipped to me than it should have, so I guess we’re all at fault here. Share the blame. Or at least my part of it.
To briefly recap the necessary history, Ben Folds Five (Ben Folds, Darren Jessee, and Robert Sledge) was together for roughly seven years before separating in 2000. They reunited for a one-off show in North Carolina in 2008 (one week before I was in the area for a wedding – boo!) but had otherwise gone their separate ways until late 2011 or so, when I first started hearing rumblings of a new album and tour.
Sure enough, in the spring of 2012, Ben Folds Five launched a campaign via MusicPledge (basically, it’s like Kickstarter, except… well, it’s exactly like Kickstarter) where fans could fund the recording of the new album. Rewards for backers ranged from MP3s to a custom version of the song Do It Anyway rewritten to be about you. At $2,500, that one was sadly out of my price range (this did not stop me from considering it, ever so briefly, but I did not Do It Anyway). Instead, I opted for a signed vinyl record (I’m not really into autographs if I didn’t get them personally, but I bought in early and initially, there was no unsigned vinyl option) and a CD. These came with a digital download as well.
Due to some sort of snafu, my copies of the record and CD were months late. I hadn’t even thought of it since I got my digital download as soon as it was available. The first time I realized that I was still owed my rewards was when I got a very apologetic email from Ben Folds Five’s manager, offering me a CD or a t-shirt as a make-good. I opted for the extra CD (which showed up before the CD and signed record I’d initially ordered), which I gave to a fellow BF5 fan.
At any rate, my CD and record finally showed up!
Isn’t that lovely? And as an added bonus, all people who contributed to the campaign were credited in the liner notes as Vice-President of Promotion. This was a running theme throughout the promotion of the record, with fans encouraged to use the hashtag #ImADamVP when tweeting about the record. I’m guessing that I bought in fairly early, given my early placement in the liner notes (two rows under Promotion):
So after all that, is the record any good? The first thing I note is that the album, as a whole, sounds more mature than earlier efforts. The first song, Erase Me, is a breakup song in the vein of 1997’s Song For The Dumped. It almost works as a sequel of sorts; while Song For The Dumped takes place immediately after “you dumped me on your front porch,” Erase Me is a few weeks removed from the split, after the singer’s ex “turned around in two weeks’ time, replaced me.” Erase Me doesn’t have the out-of-control anger of Dumped, but there might be even more bitterness.
Similarly, I have no reason to think that the Sara(h?) in the title track is the same Sara-spelled-without-an-H that Ben Folds introduced on 2001’s Rockin’ The Suburbs, but I like to think that she broke up with Zak, grew up some, got her shit together, and is looking forward to moving on with life. This song was written by Nick Hornby (who also collaborated with Folds on the album Lonely Avenue) and I highly doubt he set out to write a sequel to Zak & Sara but I am not about to let “facts” stop me.
I think the best song on the album is On Being Frank. I generally prefer the faster, catchier songs, but Ben Folds does have a knack for writing some nicely depressing songs when he sets his mind to it. This one is written from the perspective of Frank Sinatra’s long-time assistant, who finds himself directionless after Sinatra’s death:
I shook the hands
Of mafia dons and presidents
And though they always smiled politely
With a measure of decorum
Still their eyes would scan beyond me
For a glimpse of something more
But now he’s gone
And now they’re gone
Frank doesn’t make good driving music and I can’t see it being a hit single – but then, I didn’t think I’d hear a ballad about a teenaged couple’s abortion on the radio either, so what do I know? Compared to Brick, “I don’t know where I might be going / I rode the wind; the wind stopped blowing” is pretty tame.
Now that we’ve had some nice grown-up songs, the chorus of the song after On Being Frank is “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall.” This is by far the silliest song on the record, and after dozens of listens, I’m still not entirely sure what it’s supposed to be about. It’s fun to sing along to, so I don’t really care. And like most songs on this album, there’s a hint of something darker lurking underneath: “Is it all in my mind? I could have sworn I saw it / I thought I was fine, ’til ‘fine’ was what I called it.”
The first single off the album is Do It Anyway, a song that Folds basically wrote on the spot in the middle of a live show. He played the original recording during an interview with Jian Ghomeshi on Q and it was amazing just how much of the song sprang to life fully formed (you can hear it about 14:45 into that video clip). Folds recorded it on his phone, I believe, and I’d pay $1.29 for the iTunes download, just because it makes for such a neat b-side. Most of the song is about facing and ignoring your fears, not letting “good” judgment keep you from great experiences (I’ve already talked about what a questionable decision it may have been to write and release that song, given that Folds may never again be allowed to wisely decline any offer). And much like Draw A Crowd, this is a fun number that takes a melancholy turn: “It’s gonna be so very hard to say and watch the trust and joy all drain from her innocent face, but you must do it anyway / It sucks, but do it anyway.”
Michael Praytor, Five Years Later is a about those people that you never quite shake from your life, even though you never do anything to keep them around. The titular Praytor comes back every five years, “in film, divorced, inspired, engaged, in chemo, born again, and fired.” He also showcases a Ben Folds trademark – the dude loves to use proper names in his songs, and if they ever-so-coincidentally rhyme with what he wants to write about, so much the better. I find this affectation grating in some of Folds’ weaker songs, but I am perfectly fine with it here.
There are also a handful of slower songs on this album that didn’t really stand out as much to me. None of them are bad; just not as noteworthy. The album closes with three straight, and when driving around, I find I skip past them to get to some of the faster songs. This isn’t really fair – I especially enjoy Hold That Thought when I actually listen to it – but so it goes.
I was concerned about the Five three would come up with for their first album in over a decade. They’ve made some of my favourite records and I didn’t want anything that would tarnish their legacy. I’ve often said that Ben Folds is a great songwriter who would benefit from occasionally having an editor. He’s written some of my most-loved songs, along with a handful that I just can’t stand. And while there’s nothing here that will displace my very favourite BF5 song (Philosophy, if you were wondering) (or indeed if you weren’t), The Sound of the Life of the Mind doesn’t have anything that I really don’t care for; we get one classic, and a number of solid additions to the band’s repertoire. Folds has said that the recording sessions left them with enough material for two more albums, and I’m looking forward to them.