The BFF Effect: Ben Folds Five Brings It Back Together

It’s such a pleasure to hear a new BFF (BF5? That’s not how I remember it, but I see it that way on Twitter) album after all these years. It’s been 13 years, in fact, since the last Ben Folds Five studio album.  Each of the band members has had work ongoing in the meantime.  Ben Folds has his solo career and Fear of Pop, his television stint on The Sing-Off, and his music studio in Nashville, where he has collaborated or produced artists from Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips and Kesha to Nick Hornby and William Shatner.  Darren Jessee has his band Hotel Lights, and Robert Sledge had his hand in several bands.  Nothing came out, however, that was as fully satisfying to the audiences as the musical synergy of Ben Folds Five.  This reunion has probably been creeping up since 2008, when they got together to play a MySpace concert (the entire …Reinhold Messner album).  The seeds certainly were planted by the time they joined again in 2011 to re-record tracks for Ben + BFF album The Best Imitation of Myself.  Their disbanding, at least from a public perspective, was reasonably amicable, and musically it must have just seemed to be time to give it another shot.  It was, and the resulting album is good for previous fans and new ones.

The Sound of the Life of the Mind presents us with a more mature take on the  world that the guys of BFF inhabit, but with the same insight — often simultaneously pained and humorous.

“Erase Me” is my favorite, a 5:15 divorce rock-aria with fantastic structure and a potentially unreliable narrator that has lyrics which draw a perfect 15 year arc from the clueless protagonist of “Song for the Dumped”.  The lyrics of the divorcé are a little older and ostensibly wiser, but it only takes a scratch to reveal the voice of the hurt boy inside; the lyrics lurch back and forth between resignation and anger, each section revealing a little more pain.  The song has so many mini-movements, it wouldn’t be unfair to say it shares some DNA with “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its own way (falsetto included).  And that fuzzy bass!  Thank you, Robert Sledge, for reintroducing some rock and roll alongside that piano.  There are ways to bring back successful musical elements without pandering to past success: you are doing it right.

The album has all the whip-smart intelligence and astounding piano work of Ben Folds, but with that certain something extra that really only seems to happen when the three guys of the Five collaborate. And it doesn’t even require that Ben write all the lyrics to get the BFF effect: my next two favorites on the album are “Sky High,” with lyrics by Darren Jessee, and the title track, with lyrics by novelist Bruce Hornby.

“Sky High” locks on to a bittersweet memory and doesn’t let go, its wistful steadiness an effective counterpoint to the boiling anguish of “Erase Me.”  Between those two songs is “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” a song with a familiar tempo and theme that recalls earlier BFF songs without actually being a throwback.  “Michael Praytor” doesn’t knock it out of the park, but it has a tight sound and its placement as “second batter” helps the flow; that kind of pacing successfully makes a collection of songs into an album.

The short story of “The Song of the Life of the Mind” is compact and effective.  Nick Hornby’s little paean to Sarah Vowell extends to anyone among us who liked school and wondered what all the fuss was about in our younger years, and BFF makes the changes rumble with pent-up energy.  It’s followed by “On Being Frank,” which is successful at what it sets out to do — make a character study of someone who worked for Frank Sinatra for years and doesn’t seem to have a life without his job — but doesn’t make the leap to broader expression that the best songs do.  It doesn’t detract from the album, but it doesn’t add much, either.  I won’t insult it by calling it filler; it’s just a lesser song on an album that has some great songs.

“Draw a Crowd” is brilliant in the verse, but I find the casual coarseness of the chorus frustrating.  It’s such a good song; couldn’t the chorus lyric been sharper?  It is guaranteed to be cheered by a certain portion of the audience (former college fanboys, I’m looking at you), but… The gem in this song is Ben’s willingness to shoot himself (or his adopted persona) down.  These sentiments were threaded all through some of his solo work, and it works better for some songs than others.  It’s just so successful in the verse that they could have held out for a better chorus lyric.  I felt this way when listening to “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” back in 1997 — I *know* it scans, and matches the feeling of the verse, but it’s just kind of facile when we all know the brilliant work Ben and BFF can do.

The best news: there’s nothing but piano-driven goodness after that!

“Do It Anyway” charms, warns, and encourages all at once.  It’s already a very good track, and the Fraggles co-starring role in the video supports and subverts the song; adding a bite of nostalgia to a song that is fresh on it’s own terms is darned close to a formula for popularity.  But even here there’s a twist — remember, there is a warning in the song, it’s not just updated “high apple pie in the sky hopes” lyrics.  “It’s gonna be so very hard to say/And watch the trust and joy all drain from her innocent face/But you must/Do it anyway.”  Just like they did with “Kate” back in the day, BFF couldn’t be content with an actual sunny affirmation; those bright bouncy chords often just illuminate the offset.

“Hold That Thought” sounds a little more like a solo song from Ben Folds, if we ever really can say what that means.  The difference is ineffable.  It’s got his notable storyteller’s sensibility, yet there’s something rich in the presentation that is satisfying that I think comes from the BFF collaboration.

I’m certain that I’d like “Away When You Were Here” even if it hadn’t managed to hit my personal bull’s-eye of a father dying while the narrator was still young.  The structure is good, the melody pensive yet open, the chorus convincing.  Despite the fact that by all reports Ben’s dad is alive and well, I find this song  is both artfully universal and eerily accurate to my own case.  Cancel any semblance of a subjective review from me on this one.

The album closes with “Thank You for Breaking My Heart” and the song doesn’t disappoint.  Ben Folds sometimes struggles to portray tender joy and doesn’t present it often.  Really, his two songs for his kids are the only ones that can be classified as unarguably warm.  Still, Ben Folds can be powerful when displaying tender melancholy.  All three musicians, after all these years, seem to know their strengths for this album, and they support each other well.

The BFF Effect: yep, it’s really just better when they’re together.

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