Ben Folds Five released it’s first new album in 13 years this week, and maybe for the first time since disbanding the eponymous three-piece over a decade ago, the piano man himself finally sounds like he’s a little happier about things.
After four solo albums and 10 years worth of anger, disillusion, regrets, and a baby grand full of sarcasm, Ben Folds gives a sense of being comfortable with his current existence on The Sound of the Life of the Mind. Mostly gone are the revenge fantasies against adult bullies, scornful lovers, parents, and most of the civilized world that frequented Fold’s solo work. Instead, his new work is immediately more reflective, relaxed, and dare I say, content.
Now, with Ben Folds, the sunshine is never poking entirely through the clouds, and this album is no exception. He still finds time to moan about the music industry on “Draw a Crowd,” which implores his subject to try graffiti if fans don’t flock to shows. On the opening “Erase Me,” Folds channels Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and wonders what his former lover would choose to forget about their time together. Still, this subtle form of the lyrical psychologists’ couch is an evolution from his previous way of dealing with purported enemies; no longer is he calling out folks by name, or by actions, and he’s not exactly screaming at folks to give his money back.
Musically, the re-addition of remarkably versatile drummer Darren Jesse and melodically skillful bassist Robert Sledge has made Fold’s compositions easier to take in, while adding a layer of complexity missing from the last 10 years of solo work. Both sidemen’s jazz backgrounds give the ivory tickling front man space to move around. Folds no longer has to hold entire songs together, and this new found freedom helps bring back some of the orchestral like arrangements that made the last Ben Folds Five album, The Unathorized Biography of Rhinehold Mezner, such a classic among fans. Perhaps more than anything, Jesse and Sledge’s greatest added value to Folds is their unique and well used backup vocals. This time around, the band actually uses some psychedelic Radiohead-like sections to utilize the harmonies, none more than on the beautiful ballad Sky High.
Thematically, the album certainly revolves around getting older. The two sidemen have been rescued from suburban retirement, but even Folds admits lyrically that he’s not the rock star he once was. On the title track, Folds channels the album cover’s trapped undersea robot, at once admiring the growing cultural world around him, while admitting that the speed of the outside world may be passing him by.
Older and maybe wiser, Ben Folds Five has come back out of inactivity with a full, rich, and diverse album that seemingly does the impossible: It makes Ben Folds seem like a slightly happier guy.