The trio’s comeback is a welcome one, but this fourth album is no catalogue classic.
Chris Beanland 2012
The good news is that one of the most consistently entertaining pop-rock bands of the 1990s is back together. The bad news is that the album they've released to mark their comeback isn't quite a classic.
And it's hard to be sure of the reasons why that's the case. Perhaps bands just have a moment, and for Ben Folds Five that moment happened two decades ago. That this fourth studio collection (and first since 1999) lacks verve is odd, as Folds' solo material since BFF's 2000 split has been up there with the best of the Chapel Hill trio's earlier output. Bruised, Time and Trusted were all masterpieces.
Here, though, the opening track Erase Me and closer Thank You for Breaking My Heart especially fail to dazzle. And the record sags at its middle, too. But thankfully this isn’t the whole story, as three tracks really stand out.
Michael Praytor, Five Years Later is an enjoyable stomp in the band's best tradition. Interestingly, the other two standouts weren't written by Ben Folds at all. Sky High is a brittle lament with a silky chorus which was penned by Darren Jessee, BFF's drummer. Jessee's songwriting is a fascinating contrast to Folds' – and together the pair have proved unstoppable, penning canon classics like Brick and Where's Summer B.?.
And Folds’ other super-collaborator? Step forward author Nick Hornby. The title track of this album was apparently left over from the pair’s Lonely Avenue sessions. It's incredible to think The Sound of the Life of the Mind, the song, might never have been seen the light of day, because it’s a triumph. Hornby's witty lyrics lionise folk heroes like Rosa Parks, and Folds puts his heart and soul into yelling a chorus which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
In the sense that this particular song was almost passed over, and also that is a perfect piece of pop music, The Sound of the Life of the Mind a direct corollary to that other misplaced and magical Ben Folds Five track from many years ago, Emaline.