Ben Folds – What Matters Most – CD Review

Ben Folds – What Matters Most – CD Review

12th June 2023 0 By Dan Peeke

Since the release of his last album, So What, Ben Folds was appointed Artistic Advisor to the
National Symphony Orchestra at The Kennedy Centre, released an incredibly insightful
autobiography and accompanying podcast appeared as a fictionalised version of himself in
Prime Video’s The Wilds, and released a trio of tracks: ‘Mister Peepers’, ‘2020’ and ‘It’s The
Small Things, Charlie Brown’.

While each and every one of these endeavours have been successful, fruitful and impressive in
their own way, What Matters Most sees Ben Folds return to what he does best.
Despite a distinctive southern accent and manic piano outbursts defining both Ben Folds’ solo
output and his work with Ben Folds Five, there is a clear difference in tone between the two that
his latest album shines a light on. Ben Folds Five utilised a consistent style that the deceptively
talented trio stuck to across four stunning albums. As a solo artist, however, Ben Folds strives to
reinvent his sound across each release. Way To Normal wandered towards a futuristic,
electronic-influenced direction, while So There was a refined collaboration with chamber
orchestra YMusic. What Matters Most isn’t as easy to define:

“There’s a lifetime of craft and experience all focused into this one record. Sonically, lyrically,
emotionally, I don’t think it’s an album I could have made at any other point in my career.”

The album’s first track, ‘But Wait, There’s More’ is postmodern in its self-inferentialism as much
as its musical structure. A minute of Reichian keyboard minimalism forms a bed for Folds’
deceptively simple melodies, which soon give way to ambitious vocal harmonies and extended
chords. It isn’t until the final minute that we hear the low, percussive stomp of Folds’ grand piano
and we’re truly transported into his world, only this time the laid-back horns reminiscent of
‘Army’ have joined the party. On So There, Folds took the twenty minutes of his ‘Concerto For
Piano And Orchestra’ to dive into a unique menagerie of genres, ideas and timbres; on What
Matters Most, he’s done it in less than four.

Ben Folds is no stranger to collaboration, with the likes of Regina Spektor appearing on one of
his most beloved tracks (‘You Don’t Know Me’), and the entirety of Lonely Avenue – my personal
favourite of his solo records – being co-written with the author Nick Hornby. ‘Clouds With
Ellipses’ and ‘Moments’, which feature dodie and Tall Heights respectively, are two of What
Matters Most’s standout pieces. The first indulges the craving for a sweet, tenderly melodic
ballad, with dodie’s voice sitting gently above his own. The second, underpinned by a shuffling
snare pattern, acts as the “almost surreal positive finale” to an album he always intended to be
driven by the two-side structure of a vinyl record.

‘Exhausting Lover’ is classic Folds in a completely different way. Thick, distorted basslines sit at
the opposite end of the sonic spectrum to the playful falsetto that delivers typically self-aware,
story-driven lyrics about rock and roll debauchery. ‘Paddleboat Breakup’ is a similarly
lyric-driven, as Folds depicts the breakup of a relationship in the middle of a lake over muted
guitar chords.

Despite typically avoiding guitars throughout much of his career (with some notable exceptions –
‘Rockin’ The Suburbs’ being the most obvious), What Matters Most is filled with some beautiful
guitar writing. ‘Kristine From The 7th Grade’ is effectively a piece of classical music, with a
delicate acoustic waltz underpinning both his voice and the slow build towards the violin and
piano duet that brings side one to a close. Side two also puts guitar at its forefront, with the airy,
chorus-laden chords of ‘Back To Anonymous’ forming a bed for another gentle ballad.

Folds made the brave choice to release the album’s most musically complex track as the
album’s lead single, with its main groove fitting into both 7/8 and 7/4 simultaneously, and
extended and suspended chords lurking around every corner. You could also say he managed
to make the album’s most complex track its catchiest, with that short piano hook simply refusing
to leave your head, in the same way, that Tori Amos’ ‘Cornflake Girl’ did thirty years ago.
Despite being left until late on, it is his perfectly chosen lead single that encapsulates the whole
of What Matters Most – depth, complexity and unpredictability, laced with familiarity, catchiness
and humour. It might not sound like it at times, but the whole album is classic Folds. Even if
‘classic’ in this context refers to everything from “punk rock for sissies” and tender piano ballads,
to experimental electronic pop and full orchestral suites.

“There’s a lifetime of craft and experience all focused into this one record. Sonically, lyrically,
emotionally, I don’t think it’s an album I could have made at any other point in my career.”
Score 9/10
1. But Wait, There’s More
2. Clouds With Ellipses (feat. dodie)
3. Exhausting Lover
4. Fragile
5. Kristine From The 7th Grade
6. Back To Anonymous
7. Winslow Gardens
8. Paddleboat Breakup
9. What Matters Most
10. Moments (feat. Tall Heights)

Label – New West Records
Release – 2nd June 2023

For all things, Ben Folds, click HERE and to purchase the album, click HERE

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