When you're really good at something, there's a pernicious tendency to want to push your talents in new directions. Woody Allen wants to write dramas. Michael Jordan wants to play baseball.
Yet for every Crimes & Misdemeanors, there's Jordan flailing helplessly at a curveball. Ben Folds falls somewhere between. His solo career certainly hasn't been a failure; he's far too talented a writer. But since shuttering Ben Folds Five, he's been preoccupied with lush orchestrations and adult contemporary pop balladry cut from a similar cloth as BF5's biggest hit, "Brick."
To each his own. Still, with the possible exception of 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs, Folds hasn't released an album even nearly the equal to his former band's three discs. The lyrics are still typically pretty smart, but in terms of imagination, the mannered piano balladry is a lot closer to Tori Amos than Fiona Apple (and Randy Newman's completely off the table).
So it makes a lot of sense that, as he turns 46 (on Sept. 12), Folds should go back to the outfit that made it all possible and with whom he's done his best work. The prodigal's return is always delayed because he's the last to learn what everyone else already knew: This is where you belong. Nobody writes piano rock quite as muscular, thoughtful or quirky. There's something about bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee that brings out the best in him.
This is clear, though in fits and starts, on The Sound of the Life of the Mind, due out Sept. 18; it's the band's fourth studio album but first since 1999. The opening track, "Erase Me," begins with a few measures of Sledge's signature fuzz bass before retreating into the jazzy, slow-moving soft rock that has made Folds' solo work so dispiriting. A minute later, Sledge shows up again, building to a suitably idiosyncratic climax complete with "Scaramouche! Scaramouche!" call-return backing vocals, and we remember why we came.
Honestly, the first half of the 10-track album is nothing to write home about. The song about a friend Folds seems to randomly encounter like clockwork, "Michael Praytor, Five Years Later," has a nice power pop/ new wave bounce, like something Fountains of Wayne might do. The overreaching title track, featuring a college girl more into books than parties, has the anthemic emotional pitch of a Springsteen song despite her rather mundane conundrum, for which co-writer/ author Nick Hornby is partially to blame. (Folds and Hornby collaborated on the music and words, respectively, for 2010's Lonely Avenue.)
The Jessee-written "Sky High" recalls his own '70s AM radio soft rock that, while pretty, does little to improve the pace of the disc's first half. The opening bars of "On Being Frank," a turgid track about Sinatra's right-hand man, suggest "Wichita Lineman," and the song never leaves that shadow, coming across like a recent Folds solo track.
But just when you might've given up hope, BF5 deliver two of the better tracks they've ever written: "Draw a Crowd" and "Do It Anyway." I have no idea what these songs are doing at the six and seven spots; it's incomprehensible that the band believed the other five tracks are better.
"Draw a Crowd," a mid-tempo rocker, is essentially a humorous meditation with a couple of great lines ("Why does saying 'I'm just sayin' lend any weight to what I'm saying?") and a killer chorus: "If you're feeling small, and you can't draw a crowd, draw dicks on a wall." As a connoisseur of amateur bathroom stall taggers, I feel I can relate, which is good because I can't stop humming it.
And then there's "Do It Anyway"—not only one of the catchiest tunes Folds has ever written, but also some of the best advice anyone in their 40s could offer to younger folks. Fueled by a driving rhythm and ragtime roots piano, Folds offers time-tested wisdom: "If you're paralyzed by a voice in your head, it's the standing still that should be scaring you instead. Do it anyway."
There's a nice piano lead, wonderful backing vocals and an insistent melody, but it's the powerful sentiment that sets this apart. Folds offers our fickle tastes as reason to take chances—"Read me off a list of the things that I used to not like but now I think are OK"—and argues in favor of doing right by each other. "It's going to be so very hard to say and watch the trust and joy all drain from her innocent face," he sings, like someone who knows. "But you must. It sucks. But do it anyway."
The rest is a mix of modestly catchy tunes ("Hold That Thought") and radio-ready adult pop, heavy on the strings ("Away When You Were Here") and ponderous piano balladry ("Thank You for Breaking My Heart"). Whatever its flaws—clearly this disc is inferior to its BF5 predecessors—it's still a triumph because they're back. Perhaps Jessee and Sledge can prevail upon Folds to stick with what he does best. Maybe revisiting those early albums in concert will be a reminder. Whatever the case, "Draw a Crowd" and "Do It Anyway" suggest the gift is still there.
Isn't it enough to do one thing really well? Nobody wants to be the bear on the bicycle, but that peculiarly clever trick got Folds here. Does being the cloistered artiste really offer more happiness than connecting with a vast crowd in your own signature way? Go ahead, Ben. Come on out and entertain us. It may not be as creatively stimulating, but, you know, do it anyway.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ben's back in the fold with the Five."