I’m hugely excited for the release of ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’, Ben Folds Five’s September comeback LP, but that is an irksome admission; try as I might, I simply cannot convince myself that Ben Folds Five are or ever were a band it was fashionable to like. They are a self-attested door into “punk rock for sissies”, exemplified perfectly by the admirable yet overly assertive ‘Song for the Dumped’. It is magnificent, teenage, angst-driven piano-rock, but there has always been a sense of shame in my professions as a fan of the track. Ben, Robert and Darren were archetypal college misfits, too socially awkward and tied up in their own heads to command real respect or popularity, and the self-aware humour of their music has passed many by, again failing to procure mainstream respect or popularity. I am a fan though, and I hope their return will mean I won’t have to retain my hushed tones reserved for relaying that fact.
After two prior flirtations with reunion, the first a live show in 2008 and the second a recorded unification on Ben Folds’ ‘The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective’, 2012 has seen Ben Folds Five officially reform with the announcement of a tour, the promise of a new album and already some festival appearances. Coming 12 years after a reportedly amicable split, the band have teased new single ‘Do It Anyway’ and stated that 2 albums worth of material has been written. But what shall we expect? ‘Do It Anyway’ gives little away, and it’ll be interesting to see if the band return to the sarcastic humour and irony of ‘All is Fair in Love’, ‘Kate’ and the wondrous ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’, where student lifestyles reconciled themselves with effusive thought, indie rock with jazz-influenced piano passages. Or it could be the more infrequent moments of introverted beauty that flavour the new record; ‘Brick’, after all, was the band’s biggest hit, charting at #19 in the US, whilst ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Evaporated’ remained huge fan favourites. Most likely though, is that the pop-styled ‘Army’ and its broad, nostalgic self-awareness will be the order of the day. Ben Folds lost the sarcasm and cynicism over time, his own solo work oscillating between high-energy covers and novelty swearing, and biographical songs tinged with regret and reminiscence. Age caught up with the former champion of alternative-college-rock geek chic, and I’m expecting the same of the reunited 3-piece.
Whichever direction the band has chosen to take, it is nigh on certain that the musicality will remain. Multi-instrumentalist Folds arranged syncopated piano parts and vocal harmonies with a great sense of enjoyment and unapologetic cliché, whilst Sledge’s and Jessee’s rhythm section toyed between jazz and punk with ease. I personally hope for a reunion bringing more of the old ‘Whatever and Ever Amen’-style intelligence in lyricism and musical function, as our contemporary musical world is far more accepting of sarcasm and duplicitous songs than the brash, grunge environment of early 90s college-rock – I think I’d feel far less ashamed to declare my love for Ben Folds Five to a scene that recognises and praises Dirty Projectors, Arctic Monkeys and Everything Everything. But if Ben Folds Five return with a more pop-orientated sound, their talent and self-awareness will undoubtedly keep me excited regardless. Bring on ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’, and bring on more “punk rock for sissies”.
By Vinay Joshi