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Ben Folds Five, ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’ (ImaVeePee/Sony Legacy)

Rockin' the internet / Photo by Autumn de Wilde
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Label: ImaVeePee/Sony Legacy

“Oh, if you’re feeling small / And you can’t draw a crowd / Draw dicks on the wall,” Ben Folds sings on The Sound of the Life of the Mind, his first album with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee in more than a decade. He’s spent the majority of his career doing just that, of course: Whether it’s been his own tunes (“Army,” “Rockin’ the Suburbs”) or someone else’s (he turned Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” into a tender ballad), Alternative Nation’s preeminent piano man has never shied away from flying his ribald goofball flag.

For Folds, humor has always been a tool to balance the two other main ingredients in his writing: abject rage and startling earnestness. The opening track on The Sound of the Life, “Erase Me,” offers a case in point: It’s an angry, embittered break-up song played for laughs. “Erase me / Do me like a bro and tase me,” he sings over the wallop of his piano’s low end; he alters the second line with a new joke each time he hits the chorus (“What the fuck is this? You’re crazy,” “Option-Command-Escape me”), cleverly diffusing his ugly, unflattering resentment by making fun of it, much the way he did on older tunes like “Song for the Dumped” and “Bitch Went Nuts.”

Compare this to the album’s final tune, “Thank You for Breaking My Heart,” another breakup song, but this one completely free of nods, winks, guffaws, or any attendant bitterness. “I want a different answer, so I ask you again,” he sings over a winsome piano melody as the song opens. But rather than dwell on what might have been, this song is about sincerely accepting the dissolution of a relationship, not ranting about the injustice of it all.

The rest of the album falls mostly between these emotional bookends. There’s a warm, string-laced ode to Frank Sinatra’s manservant (“On Being Frank”), a thunderous meditation on teen alienation — co-written with novelist Nick Hornby — that does a hell of a job tapping into the desperation of feeling like you’re surrounded by idiots (the title track), and a breathless, galloping exhortation to live life hard and dangerously (“Do It Anyway”). While the results aren’t vastly different from the stuff that Folds has done on his own in the last decade (even drummer Darren Jessee’s gentle “Sky High” feels pretty comfortably in his bandmate’s wheelhouse), there is a weight and a whomp to the songs that hasn’t always been present in his solo work. Very little here could be accused of being twee; Folds sounds invigorated to have a rock band behind him again, making him play harder, sing harder, be harder.

The album’s finest moment is the one that doesn’t fit so easily into any of the trio’s usual categories. “Away When You Were Here,” is a fleshy, orchestral first-person ballad addressed from a son to his late father. Folds has covered this terrain before with tender, naked tear-jerkers like “Still Fighting It” and “Gracie,” but those songs, for all their not inconsiderable merits, are shamelessly sentimental. This one is nostalgic, but not dewy-eyed: It’s full of love and grieving for a lost father, but also hardened by years of coming to terms with that father’s undeniable shortcomings and leaving his ghost behind.

“It’s not about you anymore,” Folds sings on the bridge. “It’s about what I do with it all / I’ll never let you let me down.” If it’s not the best thing he’s ever written, it’s probably the most thoughtful and mature. Sometimes, apparently, it takes reuniting with some old friends to make you realize how much you’ve actually grown.