You can make up your own mind about the subtleties, but there is an unmistakable tension between expressionist music and introspective lyrics throughout Ben Folds Five's new full-length, The Sound of the Life of the Mind. On their first record in 13 years, the Nashville group contemplates the effects of growing older, with detours into such related subjects as the vagaries of success and the death of Frank Sinatra. Still, there's something off-kilter about The Sound of the Life of the Mind, and whether or not you think that's deliberate may come down to what you expect from pop music itself. Folds and his rhythm section ring the changes associated with the bright, piano-driven pop that's made them famous, but the music is shot through with tension.
For the North Carolina-born Folds, who just turned 46, the new record represents a return to group dynamics — since Ben Folds Five parted ways in 2000, Folds has been a record producer and a solo artist. He also wrote music for animated films and judged the Sing Off television reality show. Coming off the great success of Ben Folds Five in the late '90s, Folds established himself as a solo artist, but he says he was ready to work within the group format again.
"It was a gradual evolution," Folds says from his Nashville home. "I was really busy, and had done a lot of things I felt I could do on my own that you can't do in a band. Twelve years of that, and I feel like it's time to play with the guys I came up with."
On Sound of the Life, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee add a jazzy energy to Folds' songs — the prog rock-flavored "Erase Me" begins the record with lumbering bass riffs, Beach Boys-style backing vocals and barely suppressed angst. If the obvious reference points are Emitt Rhodes, The Beatles and The Beach Boys, you can also hear the lingering influence of '70s pianist and singer Andy Pratt, an ambitious experimental artist whom you could characterize as the Ben Folds of his era.
But Folds sounds eminently pragmatic and well adjusted here, so the tag of pop experimentalist doesn't exactly suit him.
"We've always stretched, and we've always done things that feel like the great unknown," Folds says. "I think that's really important, to feel like you're breaking your own rules. When you look at the course of our albums, we always have done that. I don't know if we ever aspired to do that aggressively."
Of course, the sound of Folds' piano is reassuring in itself. Not exactly a jazz player, Folds has perfected a style that draws upon the manner of such titans as Leon Russell and Elton John. If anything, Jessee's drumming and Sledge's droll bass lines provide the rock 'n' roll, while Folds writes songs that evoke everyone from Nilsson to Supertramp. The background vocals on Sound of the Life recall those of 10cc circa 1975's The Original Soundtrack full-length — a touch that Folds says was deliberate.
"We pulled a complete 10cc on the song 'Sky High,' " explains Folds. "It's a complete nod, not only to the record it references, but the way we did it. We spent all the time, and we made vocal loops and ran them through the board, and I pulled up notes according to what I was hearin' in the arrangement. It was really fuckin' time-consuming, but it's fun."
"Sky High" begins with spooky, wordless voices, and the song floats along in medium tempo. Like most of the record, "Sky High" details the kind of painful experiences that come with maturity. Elsewhere, "On Being Frank" is about the death of Frank Sinatra, but seems slightly out of focus, while "Draw a Crowd" is the band at their most cynical: "Oh, oh, if you're feeling small / And you can't draw a crowd / Draw dicks on the wall."
The title track displays the band's arranging skills, which keep the song's narrative flowing. Meanwhile, "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later" is the group at its most inventive, with a structure that perfectly mirrors the song's somewhat fragmented lyrics.
Producer Joe Pisapia keeps things lively — the record has texture, and Folds displays his melodic gift. Still, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is a conflicted work, and it could be that this gifted Nashville tunesmith is unusually aware of the way rock 'n' roll's amateurism clashes with the demands of professional songwriting. "Amateurs are the people who are the more talented, more dangerous, more interesting, more creative," he says. "In Nashville, it's much more difficult, because you've got all this talent, but there's all this business. No one had those rules where we came from."
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