This is the sound of a group returning to something it loved, something that made sense in its time — and still does again, in the playing.
“The Sound of the Life of the Mind,” the title track from Ben Folds Five’s first album of original material in 13 years — due September 18, 2012 on ImaVeePee-Sony — builds from a plaintive Folds piano, through an overactive rhythmic cadence courtesy of bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee, into a series of episodic outbursts of sound and verse that recall, and then very nearly supersede, everything this group once accomplished on standout albums like 1997′s Whatever and Ever Amen and its too-soon 1999 farewell Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.
Tracing the closed-off existence of someone who doesn’t dare leave school because she’s too comfortable within the rhythmic semester-length examinations of higher thought, the Ben Folds Five could be accused, maybe at first, of settling for something too close to “Brick,” the out-of-nowhere single that propelled this Chapel Hill, North Carolina band’s major-label debut Whatever to two million in sales.
But, soon, their voices are bouncing around like half-remembered self recriminations, and the narrative (from Folds and Nick Hornby) finds a deeper resonance — “she doesn’t want to hear about the pregnancies, phone fights … the sound of the life she’ll leave behind” — and a devastating loneliness closes in. Sledge adds this buzzy, grinding bass even as Folds begins pounding with a furious passion, and Jessee neatly echoes the lyric’s turbulent emotions with these sweeping drum fills.
And, just like that, the song comes to a quick end — with nothing left but Sledge’s humming bass, a sound that imbues her decision with this crashing sense of finality.
In a way, the musical ambition of “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” is not unlike last year’s “House,” a new song attached to the career-spanning Ben Folds Five retrospective The Best Imitation of Myself. But, for me, there seems to be a broader sense of camaraderie here, a freer experimental verve — and that works in perfect counterpoint to the song’s heart-breakingly sad storyline.
I wasn’t expecting that kind of complexity, not after so long away. “The Sound of the Life of the Mind” sounds like a band completely in the moment again.