BEN FOLDS FIVE: THE SOUND OF THE LIFE OF THE MIND (2012)
1) Erase Me; 2) Michael Praytor, Five Years Later; 3) Sky High; 4) The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind; 5) On Being Frank; 6) Draw A Crowd; 7) Do It Anyway; 8) Hold That Thought; 9) Away When You Were Here; 10) Thank You For Breaking My Heart.
Another awful, awful disappointment. You'd think that getting back together with «The Five» would be just the right shot in the arm for Ben after his last album showed him moving ever closer in the direction of limp and lifeless balladry, stuck in the middle between mainstream adult contemporary and equally boring «alternative» indie snoozefest stuff. Surely, one of the loudest, whackiest, and most creative rhythm sections of the past two decades in pop music should have put the man back on the right track?
Well, they do — at least on the right lead-in track: ʽErase Meʼ opens with a thunderblast, as Sledge's volcanic bassline immediately latches on to Ben's opening power chord and leads into one of the heaviest numbers in Ben Folds 21st century history. Technically, it is still a ballad, but the "erase me, so you don't have to face me" chorus almost glows with self-righteous anger, and nobody could have helped Ben in this more than his old drums 'n' bass pals. It does seem a little suspicious that the new Ben Folds Five album opens up with something «deeply psychological» rather than «head-spinningly playful», but the heaviness and energy more than make up for the lack of humor. So maybe, you think, Ben Folds has «matured» to the point of leaving fun stuff behind — is that really so bad when his old friends are back to keep him company, and use their gargantuan sound to convey the inner battles of the soul, rather than external frustration?
The problem is, the gargantuan sound is all but gone right after the first track is over. Once it's done, the remainder of the album, with maybe one or two exceptions at best, is given over to the same flaccid piano ballads or lightweight piano pop rockers that populated Lonely Avenue — and neither Sledge nor Jessee are able, or willing to, tighten the bolts on them. The energy level drops down, the hooks are feeble, and even after four extra listens, I have not the slightest remembrance of how the other songs go. In fact, the only thing I remember is that ʽOn Being Frankʼ is built right on the chords of ʽThe Long And Winding Roadʼ, but wastes them in the context of a nominally pretty, but essentially insubstantial song.
What irritates me most of all is that it does not even look like he's trying. With his level of experience, it seems as if each of these songs should have taken about five minutes to write (lyrics excluded), and then he was just secretly hoping that the other guys would spice it up for him, but they did not. Whenever Ben does pick up the tempo, the others seem to become interested: on ʽDo It Anywayʼ Sledge eventually gets into it so much he even delivers one of his trademark «bass lead» solos, just like in the good old days. But elsewhere, they are mostly sidemen, and could just as well have traded seats with Ben's previous rhythm sections on his solo albums.
As they finally drag the record to its conclusion, the crawling, weepy, yawn-inducingly sentimental ʽThank You For Breaking My Heartʼ, the process of listening becomes unbearable. Anything for a mood change, an unusual production idea, a treated Mellotron solo, a reggae variation on ʽRock This Bitchʼ, a fart noise — anything but this never-ending and ever-worsening series of «introspective» ballads that do nothing except rehash the same old «Ben Folds and his women» topic. At this point in his life, Ben Folds simply has nothing left to say, and it is not at all clear to me why he had to involve his friends from the era of when he did have something to say in this artistic self-humiliation. Thumbs down for one of the most pointless reunions in recent rock history — for what it's worth, they should have just put out ʽErase Meʼ and maybe ʽDo It Anywayʼ on a single, and leave the rest in the dustbin for future generations to explore.
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