Since the breakup of Ben Folds Five a dozen years ago, the trio’s piano-pounding frontman has balanced his time making overly earnest solo records, producing Kickstarter millionaire/cheap boss Amanda Palmer, collaborating with ‘High Fidelity’ author Nick Hornby, serving as a judge on the TV show 'The Sing Off' and hanging out on Chatroulette, making up songs for people in their underwear. This long list of achievements goes a long way in explaining Folds’ ups and downs, his ambitions and comfort zones and, most importantly, his quirks and seriousness.

‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind,’ the first Ben Folds Five album since 1999’s underwhelming ‘The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner,’ is a little bit of all these things: smart, stupid, serious, goofy, fast, slow, cheesy and occasionally spot-on. With bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee once again backing him, Folds sounds musically freer to roam than he did during most of his solo career, especially in the opening ‘Erase Me,’ which begins with 15 seconds of heavy, distorted minor-chord stalking before giving way to piano-lounge musings about one of Folds’ favorite post-band subjects, the passage of time.

But if ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’ never finds its way in the same company of the group’s terrific first two albums -- 1995’s self-titled debut and ‘Whatever and Ever Amen’ from 1997 -- it’s more easygoing and looser than almost anything in Folds’ solo catalog. ‘Michael Praytor, Five Years Later’ skips along a ‘70s AM Gold melody, cloudy melancholy haunts the Sinatra-nodding ‘On Being Frank’ and the throwing-caution-to-the-wind ‘Do It Anyway’ charges forward with locomotive piano fills. And the sweeping ‘Away When You Were Here’ is one of Folds’ grandest musical statements.

Still, at 46, Folds is reflective, and his priorities include more than skewering the underground he and his bandmates came out of in the mid ‘90s. At times, that pushes ‘The Sound of the Life of the Mind’ overboard on the sentimental stuff. ‘Draw a Crowd’’s self-aware has-been narrator clearly knows he’s out of the game and makes the most of it. “If you can’t draw a crowd, draw dicks on the wall,” he says -- but you can’t help feeling a little sorry for the guy. The album is like that: It’s more ‘Sing Off’ sincere than Chatroulette toss-off. But growing up does that to you.

7 out of 10 rating

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