Ben Folds Five reunite: an album review
There’s no rule that says lyrics have to make sense, rhyme or be singable. But it sure doesn’t hurt. On the first Ben Folds Five album in thirteen years, Folds pursues the lyrical trend he telegraphed in a 2008 Time Magazine interview:
I always want to push the barrier a little bit with lyrics. In songs we're supposed to say, "Girl, uh huh, you done me wrong, you did." But you've got to break out of that.
Break out of that he did, first with Nick Hornby providing the lyrical content for 2010’s Lonely Avenue, and now in The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Although it’s the first album since 2005’s Songs for Silverman that sounds like it was recorded by a live band, the lack of lyrical flow and hooks keeps the long-awaited reunion from being a more celebrated event.
When I see Ben Folds perform this Sunday night in Chicago, will anyone in the audience sing along to “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later”:
Good morning, mirror
Break the change to me
I tried to stay too close to see
That there's a pattern in the tiles
And a fool who marks the miles
It was long hair
And this time it was no hair
Poetic? Debatable, I suppose, but not good lyric writing. Even drummer Darren Jessee’s lyrical contribution to the album, “Sky High” has lines that are too complex for their own good. This is rock and roll, after all.
As for the music, by the time the last Ben Folds Five album was released in 1999, they’d already begun to abandon the sound of their first two releases: the slightly out-of-tune harmonies, the raw energy and edginess – these were smoothed out on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner in a more finely-produced collection, so much so that I thought it would be their break-through album, the radio-friendly release that finally finds mass appeal. It didn’t, but the smoother production remains thirteen years later, making this collaboration sound more like another Ben Folds solo album than a reunion of an old band. I suspect that live performances of these tracks will invite an edginess on stage that wasn’t captured in the studio.
All three musicians are highly skilled, and Ben Folds is still an insanely talented and smart guy, so the album has its moments. The opening track, “Erase Me” offers tight Queen-like harmonies (and a line that Folds’s four ex-wives must find either amusing or infuriating: New bio, you’ve gone solo, drawing mustaches on our wedding photo), the distorted bass of Robert Sledge is great to hear again, and Sara without an H is back (on the title track penned by Nick Hornby), this time fleeing her pedestrian friends in favor of going to school to pursue knowledge and beauty. Coming closest to the signature Ben Fold Five sound is “Draw a Crowd,” which offers one of the few hooks on the album:
Oh, if you’re feeling small, and you can’t draw a crowd
Draw dicks on a wall
The best tune on the album, “Do it anyway,” finally has a lyric that makes sense along with a tight rockabilly pattern reminiscent of the Old 97s.
So tell me what I said I’d never do
Tell me what I said I’d never say
Read me off a list of the things I used to not like but now I think are OK
On “Away When You Were Here,” Folds sings about a father who died when the narrator was still a boy, and imagines what life would be like had he lived:
You’d have lost that weight
You’d have gone so straight
You’d have made my wedding day
You’d have saved my youth from that point of truth
You’d have kept those wolves at bay
It’s a well-executed lyric. I wish there were more of these on the album.