”I have knowledge of your works, that you are not cold or hot: it would be better if you were cold or hot,” wrote John the Revelator, quoting God in the final, apocalyptic book of the Bible. “So then because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” And surprisingly, that same line pretty much sums up the tenor of the Ben Folds Five reunion album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind.
Initially, the sound of this new disc is pretty familiar — and promising to old fans: A guitar-free trio grounded by Robert Sledge’s bass and Folds’ strong left piano hand. The keyboards — even soul organ this time around — still feature Folds’ virtuoso composition, improvisation and performance that his fans have come to admire deeply throughout his Five and solo careers. Yet, the energy, soul, je ne sais quoi of the 1990s incarnation that made the group a joyful kick in the pants of the rock establishment seems to have gone missing.
On this record there are no endearing characters like Uncle Walter touring the world in his magical armchair, the one angry dwarf and 200 solemn faces who could kiss his ass goodbye, or Steven, the exchange student who refused to leave town for so long it became a joke. Instead, we get “Erase Me,” a hooky but tortured breakup postmortem; “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later,” about a dude who might have been a dumb party person back in the day but hey, adulthood gets us all in the end, dudn’t it? and “Thank You for Breaking My Heart,” which requires no further description. Yes, after going through a couple marriages, a decade’s worth of solo output, and flunking reality TV in The Sing Off, it looks like Folds has become one of the sad sacks he deliciously mocked back in the day. So what was once fun, smart-alecky rock wrapped up in wonderful, almost reverent, 1970s piano-pop pastiches back in the 1990s incarnation of Ben Folds Five, on The Sound of the Life of the Mind now has devolved into merely overwrought 1970s piano-pop.
It’s okay to grow up and get a little serious, but now Ben Folds Five just sounds like three tired dudes extending Folds’ recent jazz-heavy, midtempo rock gloom. The sin is knowing it doesn’t have to be this way. F’rinstance, Jon Stewart’s the same age (well, four years older) but he seems to have kept his smarty-pants edge despite the graying top. If he can do it, why can’t Ben Folds Five? Until they get their swagger back, it’s difficult to recommend their music to new listeners let alone the diehards hoping for the joyride the old Five took us on. Here’s hoping the tour, at least, will reprise enough of the old stuff to make it worth seeing.