Is there a difference between Ben Folds and his band Ben Folds Five? This is the primary question raised by The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the first new Ben Folds Five album since their piano-hammering frontman disbanded the group in 2000. The acrimonious hiatus continued until last year, when, ironically, the trio regrouped to record bonus material for a box set that underscored the efforts of Folds's many collaborators and emphasized his solo work. The resulting three-disc compilation, Best Imitation of Myself, showed how hesitant Folds has been to drift from the sniveling pop formula he developed with the band in the '90s. Indeed, song-to-song comparisons between his group and solo work reveal only arrangement-driven distinctions, with recent radio favorites like "Landed" favoring studio-blessed orchestral clutter over the thumping, fuzzbox intimacy of early singles like "Brick" and "Kate."
Borrowing—and simplifying—many ideas from the counterintuitively cohesive LPs of Laura Nyro, Fleetwood Mac, 10cc, and Todd Rundgren, Ben Folds Five's first three albums stand as a late experiment in '70s-style album-oriented rock; they're concept albums for furious little nerds. Where the band's 1997 breakthrough, Whatever and Ever Amen, surrounded radio-friendly ballads with oddball snippets, choruses of hens, and bad jokes, all organized around repeating evocations of self-inflicted loss and self-loathing, Folds's 2005 solo LP, Songs for Silverman, offered a mix of top-shelf tracks diluted with obvious filler. What's arguably been missing since Folds disbanded the group is this sense of the-LP-as-petulant-story, a narrative sweep facilitated in part by a fixation on immature themes.
The Sound of the Life of the Mind reunites Folds with rhythm section/background vocalists Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse in an obvious attempt to once again fashion an album that adds up to a whole. Several songs "match up" thematically, sharing "sophisticated" four-note chords, flourishes of organ, and whiny references to discarded middle-aged men, but this musical and moral connective tissue feels obligatory and anemic. Perversely, the tracks themselves aren't designed to be appreciated on their own either: The train wheel-pumping drums and flippant refrain of "Hold That Thought" are too clearly meant as transitional, just as the piano-n'-string regret of "Thank You for Breaking My Heart" is dumbly valedictory. The final product is flimsy, even if it provides a more complete plot than any of Folds's solo releases; one can feel the band scrambling with their subpar material, forcing it into any kind of shape to which it will conform.
Part of the incoherence here is likely due to Folds's ever-developing sincerity; since disbanding Ben Folds Five, he's written simple but glowing odes to fatherhood, like "Gracie" and "All You Can Eat," that suggest a definitive apostasy from his earlier misanthropy. And while Folds sang, "I feel like a quote out of context," on the band's debut, presumably in character as a desperate-to-be-seen-as-smart failure, it wasn't a pathetic figure from which he felt the need to textual distance himself. The Sound of the Life of the Mind, by contrast, presents unambiguous and rather tender fictions. In "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later," the speaker witnesses the deterioration of a prior acquaintance into a derelict; the forceful, minor-key opener, "Erase Me," devolves into uninteresting threats of violence toward an ex-significant other.
The least decipherable track, "On Being Frank," concerns the hidden anguish of an erstwhile Sinatra assistant forced to grieve in the late Chairman of the Board's shadow; the scenario suggests an unlikely preoccupation with celebrity and frictional unemployment. (Folds oddly punctuates this monologue with the hulking, five-note motif heard throughout 10cc's dreamy "I'm Mandy, Fly Me," though the kinship doesn't cry out to be interpreted.) There's no mistaking the singer for any of the aforementioned saps, and the sympathy Folds shows toward them in his underwritten lyrics is morally commendable but eye-rollingly artless.
So much of Ben Folds Five's hard-but-really-not aesthetic of yesteryear involved their half-satirical, protracted adolescence. There's a pall of maturity over The Sound of the Life of the Mind that both unifies and wrecks it. It rejects, if only halfheartedly, the nerdy, masculine piss that once made the band such guilty fun. Once his generation's ur-complainer, Folds now quotes Mother Theresa's worldly advice to "Do it Anyway,", if only within the context of brutal emotional honesty. Even the bird-flipping anthem "Draw a Crowd" is self-conscious and trepid, with the key line "If you can't draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall" feeling weirdly softened as the song's disco beat throbs away. The band allegedly set aside a number of hard feelings in order to regroup, but the embarrassed warbling of "dicks" as "digs" in the song's chorus makes one wish they'd dragged some of their grudges into the vocal booth.