Ben Folds Five was a band that both fit into and defied the mainstream in the 90s, making them always a group worth paying some attention. The songs were pop, but the kind of self-effacing pop that knew its place (Folds himself once described his band as "punk rock for sissies"). There were smirks even was when the pathos was earnest. They were ever-so-slightly under the radar. Plus, they even said "fuck" every once in a while. The music was also, unmistakably, of Generation X. They captured vignettes of that group of people-- the scene kids with mohawks and nose piercings at underground shows to the slackers one-upping one another with their achievements in boredom and apathy -- all are quintessentially '90s, almost to the point of cliché. But through Ben Folds Five's quirkiness and half-serious approach to piano pop, there was always a sense that they were highly talented musicians, and Folds, an occasionally great songwriter.
Folds' solo albums haven't aged as well. 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs and 2005's Songs for Silverman were hit-and-miss efforts, but definitely with a good number of redeeming tracks. 2008's Way to Normal and 2010's Lonely Avenue (a collaboration with English writer Nick Hornby) were less compelling and highly erratic. Therefore, expectations for a Ben Folds Five reunion held both hope and trepidation, worries that Folds may not be able to capture the fullness of the band's sound and that the other two would be able to jump in with Folds, who had been writing consistently since the band's last record. But, The Sound of the Life of the Mind is exactly what it should be: a mature Ben Folds Five album. The bittersweet melodies, fart-fuzz bass, and unmistakable two-apart background harmonies are all there, but instead of writing about characters that might have populated Richard Linklater's Slacker, they're dealing with growing older and wiser.
Lead single "Do it Anyway," a manically-paced oom-pah tune akin to BF5 standout "The Last Polka" preaches an abandonment of the '90s too-cool-for-school attitude ("You might put your love and trust on the line/It's risky people love to tear that down/Let 'em try"). "Sky High" and "Hold That Thought" feature the type of wistful, wrenching melodies Folds can deliver as his best. "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later," a falsetto-laden, bass-heavy jam with brash percussion calls back to "Where's Summer B?" and captures the carefree spirit missing from most of Folds' solo work.
Of the album's ten tracks, only "Draw a Crowd," a repetitive tune which aims for the self-deprecating humor sweet spot ("I wanted to be Stevie Wonder/But I gotta settle for this vanilla thunder"), and "Away When You Were Here," a sappy string-drenched tune about the death of a father, miss the mark. Closer "Thank You For Breaking My Heart" isn't quite as show-stopping as the ballads that have closed BF5 albums in the past (Whatever and Ever Amen's desperate, barely-there "Evaporated" being my favorite). But overall, The Sound of the Life of the Mind stands up to the band's back catalogue, and should leave any BF5 fan who might have feared a by-the-numbers reunion album pleasantly surprised.