Reunions can be tricky beasts. While the notion of reliving your youth and seeing your former heroes onstage together after a number of years is undoubtably an exciting one, history is littered with examples of reunions that go wrong. As the old adage puts it, ‘exes are exes for a reason’ and you can never go home again. No wonder a legendary band like Pixies prefers to stick to touring every few years and avoid the recording studio.
It’s a slightly different story with Ben Folds Five. There was no real acrimony in their break-up 12 years ago, just a simple case of a trio moving on and raising families. Musically too, most BFF fans have been more than satisfied by their erstwhile leader’s solo work since the band’s split, a natural continuation of the ‘punk rock for sissies’ which they made their name with in the late ’90s.
Yet there’s still an unmistakeable thrill to see that logo on the front of Ben Folds Five’s fourth album, and to hear Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse’s harmonies while Folds frantically tinkles on his piano – and while much of The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind leans closer to Folds’ more sedate solo work, there’s still more than a few moments where the chemistry kicks into gear.
Opening track Erase Me, for example, could almost be a sequel to quintessential angry break-up song Song For The Dumped – pounding piano chords, sludgy bass and some witty wordplay from Folds (“do me like a bro and tase me…option/command/escape me”). Then there’s the wondrous Do It Anyway, which recalls the exuberance of the likes of Underground or Army, featuring rapid-fire piano and lyrics that sound like a motivational speech – “There will be times you might leap before you look, there’ll be times you’ll like the cover and that’s precisely why you’ll love the book…Do it anyway…”.
As ever with Folds, each song is impeccably crafted. The title track, co-written with author Nick Hornby and a leftover from 2010’s Lonely Avenue album, is a beautifully written account of an alienated teenage girl, more interested in her books and music than her friends (“She’s cut ’em all out of her social circle, won’t introduce them to Lincoln or Frost, doesn’t want to let them get to know Keats or Studs Terkel”), while On Being Frank is a homage to Frank Sinatra, the tale of a journey “a long way from the dustbin of New Jersey to the top”.
While those are more redolent of Folds’ solo work, Draw A Crowd harks back to the trio’s glory days, with lines like “if you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall”, while the soaring harmonies of Michael Praytor Five Years Later are an early highlight. And, as if to prove that Folds isn’t the main focal point anymore, there’s the Darren Jesse penned Skyhigh, a gorgeously bittersweet ballad.
A surplus of pretty but unsubstantial ballads bring the album to a slightly underwhelming close – as nice as Hold That Thought, Away When You Were Here or Thank You For Breaking My Heart are, it’s the rumbustious, effervescent, energetic numbers that Ben Folds Five have always been best at. However, this is a solid, if unspectacular, comeback and fans will be crossing their fingers that The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind is a new beginning, rather than a one-off cash-in.