The problem with the new Ben Folds Five album is that is doesn’t sound like a Ben Folds Five album. Pianist Ben Folds, multi-instrumentalist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee channeled the independent spirit that helped launch their career in 1994, successfully funding The Sound of the Life of the Mind through PledgeMusic and launching a fascinating grassroots publicity campaign. Unfortunately, the resulting record ended up sounding more like Folds’ tamer solo work, rather than the ex-punk, progressive, piano rock that made Ben Folds Five so sensational in the ‘90s.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the trio’s first release since 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner and only its fifth studio album ever, feels mature…and maybe overly so. Most tracks are ballads and moody ones, at that. The title track stands out among the slower songs with its narrative, as it was taken from the Lonely Avenue sessions (during which British author Nick Hornby penned lyrics and Folds crafted melodies). “Away When You’re Here” and “Thank You for Breaking My Heart,” tell particularly emotive stories, but not with the same striking pangs as classics like “Brick” off 1997’s Whatever and Ever Amen.
Ben Folds Five sounds most like itself on two back-to-back tracks in the middle of The Sound of the Life of the Mind. The synthy, snarky “Draw a Crowd” is comparable in attitude to “Song for the Dumped,” as Folds sings, “if you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall.” And “Do It Anyway,” the first song that leaked on the band’s PledgeMusic page, best integrates Folds, Sledge and Jessee’s individual musical contributions as a cohesive unit. Overall, though, The Sound of the Life of the Mind does not live up to expectations set by the preceding hype or previous standards.