What Matters Most (Deluxe Edition)

Ben Folds

New West Records, 2023


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Ben Folds is about to turn 57 years old. Wait, what?

Folds did quite well in his twenties playing an arrested-development version of himself whose potty-mouthed rants shared space with devastating ballads. Then in his thirties he broke up the band (piano power trio Ben Folds Five), moved to Australia, had a couple of kids, and dropped a series of terrific solo albums and EPs. His forties saw him divorce, reunite the old band (briefly), serve as a judge on a reality TV competition show (!), and become increasingly irregular and iconoclastic in his musical output. His only full solo album of originals since 2008’s spotty divorce album Way To Normal was 2015’s So There, which found him teaming with avant-classical sextet yMusic for nine string-heavy songs before diving headlong into the classical realm with a three-movement, 20-minute “Concerto For Piano & Orchestra.”

One could be forgiven for wondering if Folds had lost the thread, but here we are, 15 years since the last Folds album that felt like more than an experiment, trying to listen with fresh ears to his brand-new 2023 release What Matters Most. And dammit, all you cynics out there may want to turn away, because… it’s very good.

That is not true because it’s some sort of “return to form”; Folds’ talent has been evident in everything he’s tried, even if some experiments were more successful than others. It’s also not true because of some nostalgia effect; this album aggressively expands his sonic palette beyond his classic-era piano, bass and drums. It’s true because Folds got back to the heart of the matter: he wrote penetrating songs with strong melodies and interesting characters, people who aren’t all just him wearing a transparent mask.

Folds also manages the neat trick of threading together disparate elements of his musical past, adding guitars and synthesizers where they make the song better, and using strings and horns strategically to punch up specific parts of particular songs. There’s even evidence of his work as a judge on vocal showcase The Sing-Off, as kickoff cut “But Wait, There’s More” is mostly multi-tracked choral vocals over synths and looped percussion for the first two minutes, gradually adding layers and textures until it transitions to a live rhythm section and horns for the final 40 seconds. It’s also a Fold rarity: an explicitly political song about the 2020 election clustermunch, complete with references to “That freak show in the landscaping parking lot” and “Klan moms you can’t unsee,” and ending with this ominous thought: “Pray that there’s a bottom somewhere in sight / Brothers and sisters, hold tight.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Clouds With Ellipses” is a somewhat strange concoction, a pretty piano number featuring guest harmony vocalist Dodie Clark for the choruses of a vague lyric that seems to be about the pauses we take and what they mean… or something. Jokester Ben returns with cheesy nightclub electric piano and booming bass pedals for the bizarre, funny “Exhausting Lover,” whose chorus feels like it borrows from both Hamilton and Jon Batiste’s New Orleans jazz. It’s hard not to smile at a song that includes multiple references to carpet burns; it’s big and ornery, off-kilter and self-mocking in that distinctly Foldsian manner.

The other very Folds thing he does is to shift gears frequently, moving from the outsized goofiness of “Exhausting Lover” right into the deliberate, simple piano-and-strings ballad “Fragile,” which feels sweet and sincere until you listen closely: “Something so fragile about you / It's how you get away with what you do.” And then “Kristine From the 7th Grade” opens with a nightclub jazz piano/acoustic guitar/strings feel while the lyric reveals his grade-school crush has gone flying over the edge into all-caps emails and conspiracy theory memes (“Oh, what a shame, Kristine / This disease that makes strangers of friends”).

“Back To Anonymous” is an upbeat rumination on fame and its years-later aftermath that’s sweetly philosophical and features… a harmonica solo? Sure, why not. “Winslow Gardens” is maybe the one song here that could have fit neatly on almost any of the man’s previous albums, a big hooky number with electric guitar doubling Folds’ piano over a familiar, comfortable groove. It may or may not be about a place Folds lived back in the day; either way, it has a warm, lyrical feel.

Acoustic guitar features again on the airy “Paddleboat Breakup,” another number that’s arranged to feel sweet and sincere while tackling an especially messy breakup: “You must really hate me / To have planned it out like this.” The title track is also about a parting of ways, with Folds and his piano looking back and trying to figure out where things went wrong. And then “Moments” closes out the album proper with a thrummy fast-paced variation on melancholy, featuring Tim Harrington and Paul Wright of Tall Heights on background vocals.

If you’re considering springing for the full CD package with three bonus tracks, I’d recommend it.  “Happy Clapper” is a hooky character study about a naturally happy person clapping along to a song no one else can hear (“…he knows / it's not sexy being high on life”). Then “Why Did You Tell Me Everything?” again features acoustic guitar in a cautionary tune about being careful what you ask for (“Should've been listening to all your thoughts / Not just the ones that sounded like love”). Finally, Folds' cover of Roger Miller's “A Million Years Or So” delivers straight-up post-breakup piano-ballad melancholy, with Folds singing “I'm not worried, ’cause I know / I’ll forget you in a million years or so” over sweet rising falling melody. 

Overall, What Matters Most does feel like a more mature Ben Folds, which cuts both ways, since his biting, sometimes juvenile sense of humor has always been part of the attraction. Now even his fleeting moments of silliness seem purpose-driven. Still, you have to imagine that leaning into his consistently incisive observations and character studies is probably more satisfying for Ben these days—and why shouldn’t it be? Ben Folds is almost 57, and in the meantime the rest of us have all gotten older, too.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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