Ben Folds is back with The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind, the first album released by his eponymous (numerically incongruous) trio since 1999. Of course, in my opinion, the man should surely be named the Post-Modern Prince of Piano. Unifying hook-driven melodies and unceremoniously vibrant vocals with richly textured orchestration and potent Pop structures, Folds not only channels Billy Joel and Elton John— not to mention Stevie Wonder, from whom the album’s title seems brazenly borrowed (read: Songs In The Key Of Life + Music Of My Mind)— he also cherishes and champions their (Joel’s, John’s and Wonder’s) most obvious heirloom: the piano.
He makes us wonder, so to speak, if the piano remains the paramount compositional tool. In today’s world of digitized sound wherein Ableton Live, Pro Tools and, hell, GarageBand grace the laptops screens of so many budding songwriters and in which the modern musical Pride Lands are overseen, not by the Elton John-scored Mufasa, but by the likes of King Kanye, Daft Punk and even that Belgio-Australian arriviste, Gotye… in this post-Lion King 21st century jungle does old Chopin’s meagre ‘chopsticks’-machine still stand a chance of leading a clunky charge?
Though Chris Martin might cling cutely, warbling “yes! yes!”, my answer sadly cannot emerge quite so black-and-white.
There are complications. The principal problem with applying this question to Ben Folds, you see, is that he so often wallows in nostalgia. He’s like a shaken Polaroid of baby me knelt at the VCR squinting to press play on a mud-bathing Pumbaa as he relishes Rafiki’s ramblings about the great kings of the past looking down on us from the stars. Point being: Ben Folds misses the Nineties. He misses innocence. He misses his childhood. And now that he’s a father, he misses his dad. So, what I’m saying about the piano is that to see his reliance on this instrument as an exercise in obsolescence may be to overlook the fact that he, as an artist and a man, is obsessed with his own departure from the past.
The ninth track, “Away When You Were Here”, couriers this sense of departure. His dad is dead, some arpeggiated piano chords, a haze of sad memories… he feels like a boy again. In fact, most of the songs centre on some kind of loss. In “Erase Me” his former lover deletes him from Facebook and finds his replacement quicker than he thinks appropriate. In “Michael Praytor, Five Years Later” he muses about an old friend he hasn’t seen in a long time. And in “On Being Frank” he embodies the ‘My Way’-era Sinatra reflecting on escaped vigour, celebrity and aspiration. He recalls a bygone time when a nobody could become a somebody by singing a beautiful ballad. Now it’s all drum machines and self-promotion, and everyone and his dog’s a DJ.
A tinge of disappointment drags through the album. “I only wanted to be Stevie Wonder, but I got to settle for this vanilla thunder,” he admits on “Draw A Chord”. It becomes evident that he never achieved the popularity he craved. The dreamy days of limitless potential drifted away. Perhaps various stark circumstances, be they familial, financial or fictional, pulled a young Ben Folds off his piano bench and pushed him into an electrically-charged ever-changing world where he couldn’t get by on just melodizing the trivialities of suburban middle-class life. He is forced finally to confront marriage, parenthood, aging, work, taxes and failure… the circle of life, as it were. And, like Simba shivering in the Hyena graveyard, this dark intermittent period becomes the crucial moment he never lets go of. As such, lingering, longing and loss enshroud Ben Folds’ music. His all-time greatest tunes— “Brick”, “The Luckiest”, “Still Fighting It”— all hinge innocently, awkwardly and profoundly on the image of doors shutting on his youth. The title track of this newest album depicts a girl who’s as full of youthful wonder and noisy distraction as she is of awareness that it one day ends. Her recourse: “She stays in school so she can hear the sound of the life of the mind.” Like Hamlet, upon which our Disney-drawn feline royalty is based, Folds is at odds with his civilization and unable to move.
Even though I don’t think the piano is the peerless device it may once have been, the album grew on me. Aside from its unforgivably atrocious mixing, I got past the initial outmodedness and began to appreciate it a little. The ‘Hakuna Matata’-eqsue “Do It Anyway” stands out in particular. Folds has never possessed Billy Joel’s big-city coolness, Elton John’s glitzy charm or Stevie Wonder’s virtuosic transcendence, but he has found amusement in the boring, stood up for the geeky and illuminated the unique depths of the average. He fell into his moment in history, sadly, as if from Scar’s claws. And his pale spry fingers, though perfect for piano keys, may find more difficulty with touchscreens today. But like The Lion King, he holds a place in my heart.
Admittedly, however, I don’t believe I’ll ever listen to another of his albums. Ascending in order of importance, the reasons for this decision have to do with: 1) his redundancy 2) curbing the activation of my own nostalgic tendencies 3) and sanctifying the best incarnation of Ben Folds, that which introduced him to my consciousness, namely his cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.”