On Ben Folds Five, Nostalgia, And The Lies I Ought To Tell
I am an objective reviewer. I have listened to a record. This record is by Ben Folds Five. It is called The Sound of the Life of the Mind.
I recommend this record objectively. It is a good record. I am not biased.
Are you buying this?
The Popdose gang are among the finest (mostly) white nerdy people I have ever had the pleasure to know. But when we get together in our palatial offices along Monaco’s eastern coast (please let Monaco actually have an eastern coast), it can be hard to see beyond the snark. We’re all smartasses; it’s our nature to constantly riff.
So when Ben Folds comes up—as he did upon the release of the first new Ben Folds Five record in thirteen years—so do the divorce jokes, and the glib dismissive one-liners, and the begrudging admissions that sure, sometimes, he’s all right. I am of course generalizing.
This time, it pissed me off. My skin is mostly impenetrable when it comes to my personal pop culture picadilloes; this time, I felt a mild chafing, and it got me thinking.
I’m not a pop culture writer by trade; I just play one on the internet. Then again, as newspapers and magazines topple around us, everyone’s a writer on the internet. I just don’t get paid to do it. Except, of course, in LOVE.
I recognize a level of objectivity as an admirable goal in writing about culture, or art, or just about anything. Even when relaying an opinion, I was always taught to avoid the dreaded “I.” The first [person] shall be last.
But sometimes, when I am objective, I am lying to you. I am putting on a show to disguise real feelings. I am trying to appear “professional” for the sake of some imaginary reader who has imaginary expectations about how I am supposed to relate my observations.
It’s a load of bullshit.
I can’t remember my first Ben Folds Five song, or my first Ben Folds Five show, but I saw them about ten times during my early twenties. That sweet stretch right around the second album, when they had some traction from “Brick” and they were filling clubs that weren’t too big to get up close.
At my first BFF show (can I call them “BFF” or is that just too fanboy intimate?), my friend Steve and I met three Ben Folds Five groupies. They had been following the tour for a while and they were planning to continue. One of them had apparently had a drunken hook-up with Ben; another had an on-again, off-again relationship with drummer Darren Jessee. I ended up having a never-on, always-off relationship with her, which is another story for no other time, ever.
I watched Ben climb up stacks of amplifiers, fifteen feet off the ground, and hurl his piano stool down at the keys to make them explode. He screamed at the middle-class white guys in the audience to take off their shirts and throw them on stage, and I did. (Someone threw it back.) I sat on a lawn and saw them on an alternateen festival bill where they played to a half-full pavillion in the middle of the day.
Almost without my realizing it, they became one of those bands that wrapped their music into the muscles of my brain and never really left. Ben Folds the solo artist was different; I have deep affection for his work, but it was what he did after the band, when he was chronicling different times in his life, and my life too. Ben Folds Five belonged exclusively to the past, to the random girl with the gigantic eyes who occupied too much of my mind for a couple years, to the mixtapes I’d make in clumsy attempts to seduce her with other people’s music, to roadtrips into Wisconsin to see them in shitty venues and then have awkward conversations with Ben about William Shatner after the show.
Ben Folds Five was then; Ben Folds is now, along with marriage and kids and life as it happens every day.
Except they apparently went nowhere, and nothing really changed at all.
It was unusual to listen to The Sound of the Life of the Mind because even as I was falling in love with the record, I was apoplectic that it was even possible they would make a record I could fall in love with. I anticipated the sound and the occasional vulgarity; I didn’t anticipate that they’d come to the table with a new level of complexity and (dare I say?) maturity, as artists and frankly as people too. Or so it seems.
It would be cliche to say that it’s like the last thirteen years never happened, but it’s so goddamned true. Their last record, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, was a step beyond their first two albums. Songs suddenly didn’t just fit their fuzzy bass, harmony vocals, wailing piano mold anymore. There were departures and unexpected arrivals.
The sound is somewhat more “conventional” on Mind, in the sense that it really is built again around their core strengths as musicians. It’s easy to say that Folds filled in the musical blanks in his songs just fine without Robert Sledge on bass and Darren Jessee on drums, but it’s not the same without them. There’s an alchemy here that is what happens when musicians miraculously find that they play better together than they do with just about anyone else. It’s impossible to describe; it’s simple to hear.
The themes of these songs journey exactly where the title says—inward, to places that the narrators don’t really expect to be found. There’s not a lot of action in these songs, but there’s a great deal of observation, and almost too much thought—not too much for the listener, but too much for these people, who may be too trapped in their own minds to realize the life they’re missing past their eyeballs.
Back to me seething with mild annoyance as the pithy e-mails of my fellow Popdosers stack up in the ether.
I could try to step back and view this album from their critical (okay, maybe even cynical) remove. I could attempt to really formulate a cogent piece that talks about sonics or lyrics or whatever the hell, and makes the case for The Sound of the Life of the Mind as a great record. I could apply whatever “critical” “discipline” I have toward this music.
But I really can’t, because it would be bullshit; I’d be hiding all these feels away just to play armchair Christigau for a few hours.
Instead, I want to just share my naked enthusiasm for this album, as a die hard old school Ben Folds Five fan, one of those people who actually paid for Fear of Pop. But I can’t do that either, because it’s inextricably bound up in my nostalgia for the music that meant so much to me when I was young and stupid.
And this album isn’t a young and stupid Ben Folds Five album, so it probably deserves the best I can give it.
Here it is: I love this fucking record.