A masterclass in reverie, reflection and finding hope in impossible situations. Ben Folds has lots to say on his first album in eight years.
Release Date: 2nd June 2023
Label: New West Records
Formats: CD / Vinyl / Digital
He’s been away a long time; in fact, it’s eight years since last we saw any recorded product from Ben Folds – his chamber pop adventure with the yMusic Ensemble, So There, in 2015. He hasn’t been idle. Those years have been filled with activity, much of which has gone on to inform and populate the grooves of What Matters Most, his new offering. For example, he’s been working with The National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC, composing piano concertos, writing his memoir – A Dream About Lightning Bugs – and conducting his popular podcast, Lightning Bugs, that featured interviews with guests as diverse as John Batiste, Sara Bareilles, Bob Saget and Rainn Wilson. And, as if all that wasn’t enough, he’s curated shows of his own photographic work around the US and Europe, appeared as himself in three episodes of the Amazon Prime series The Wilds, and composed the music for the stage adaption of Mo Willem’s children’s novel, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs. Busy, huh?
In terms of how his recent experiences have informed his work, Ben has this to say: “It can be difficult jumping back and forth from one discipline to another, but you learn so much from moving between worlds and collaborating with so many different kinds of artists. I performed some of the songs on [What Matters Most] with the National Symphony Orchestra before I finished recording them for the album, and that context gave me so much insight into how I wanted to handle them in the studio.”
And, that enforced sabbatical from recording appears to have done Ben Folds no end of good – the ten tracks that comprise What Matters Most are a masterclass in reverie, reflection and finding hope in impossible situations.
A native of North Carolina, Ben Folds made his name in the 90s with his era-defining band, Ben Folds Five. He launched his solo career in 2001 with his album, Rockin’ the Suburbs. What Matters Most is his fifth solo venture or, if you want to count So There and Lonely Avenue, his 2010 collaboration with author Nick “Fever Pitch” Hornby, his seventh.
Written mainly in Australia and recorded in East Nashville with the capable aid of co-producer Joe Pisapia, What Matters Most is quite something; an album that combines sparsity with lush orchestration and full-on band rock, with lyrics that deal with a range of human emotions including hope, despair, gratitude and loss. The songs are sometimes introspective, often hilarious, and always reflective of experiences and situations that will be familiar to nearly every listener. It’s clear that Ben Folds is an accomplished observer of human behaviour. And, the good news is that, no matter how desperate the situation described in the song, Ben will, more often than not, provide a positive way forward.
The thought and innovation that has been put into the musical and lyrical content of What Matters Most is evident throughout the album. As Ben explains: “More than anything, I wanted to make an album that was generous, that was useful. I want you to finish this record with something you didn’t have when you started. One thing I’ve taken from all my orchestral work is that music feels best to me when it’s an EVENT. It’s easy to loose sight of that now that you can digitally edit the life and reality out of everything, but I’m trying to take the audience on a ride with me, and a big part of that requires grounding everything in the spirit of storytelling and live performance.”
Ben’s belief that, even when things look hopeless, faith and belief can prevail, is evident right from the outset in opening track, But Wait, There’s More. In lines like “We live in a world of overstimulation, overconsumption and overwhelming self-absorption – Just how much more can we take?” and with semi-oblique references to the continuing presence, just offstage, of Donald Trump, he recognizes the enduringly poor state of the nation but offers real hope of a turnaround, driven by the positive aspects of human nature. And the music, that starts as a minimalist keyboard sequence reminiscent of Laurie Anderson – or, if you’re of a certain age, a Sega Megadrive soundtrack – moves slowly into lush orchestration as the message in the lyrics becomes more and more positive.
On/off collaborator, dodie, provides some delicious backing vocals on the soothing, wistful, Clouds With Ellipses, before the synth-laden Exhausting Lover takes us to a surreal world of on-the-road rock and roll debauchery. Peppered with fine brassy interludes, Exhausting Lover is one of several real highlights on What Matters Most, and the lyrics pull no punches – “What the hell will I tell my girlfriend – the thing is, she’s not my girlfriend anymore… I traded it all for some third-degree carpet burns” is one of the milder lines in a story that recalls episodes of flagellation and much, much more.
A tempestuous relationship with a damaged partner forms the subject matter for Fragile, a slow, anguished piano ballad. Strings make their first appearance and add to the poignancy of the lyrics, and Ben’s voice is as fragile as the song’s title as he delivers lines like: “You pulled no punches, and I absorbed them.”
The tendency of the lost and lonely to confess their innermost feelings on social media is examined next. Kristine From the 7th Grade is another excellent song, awash with guitar, piano and strings. “I’ve seen so many people who’ve been torn apart from their friends and families due to all sorts of agitating things in the media and on Facebook,” says Ben. “I wanted the song to acknowledge the sadness of that.” It does indeed; The song’s subject and the anguish conveyed in the lyrics will surely be familiar to anyone who has used social media for anything but the most trivial of purposes.
Sounding disconcertingly similar to Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas, the intriguing Back to Anonymous considers the unexpected freedoms to be experienced in a world in which everyone was masked. Illuminated by splashes of pedal steel and some wonderful Stevie Wonder-ish harmonica, it’s a song that will disclose more and more of its meaning with repeated listens. A full band is featured for the first time for Winslow Gardens, the album’s lead single. In a bright, poppy, re-examination of the days of COVID isolation, the lyrics recall the persistency of the pandemic and the confusion we all felt, with lines like: “Just when it seemed to be so safe, it started all over again.”
The fragility of personal relationships gets a further airing with the dynamic, chugging Paddleboat Breakup, a darkly hilarious story about a soon-to-be-estranged couple who terminate their relationship whilst rowing across a lake in a boat. In a delightful twist, the protagonist gets his just desserts when he finds his car won’t start, once the couple return to the shore and hand in their life jackets.
With an intro and tune reminiscent of the Moody Blues’ Go Now, title track What Matters Most is yet another album highlight. The song’s lyrics, which include lines like: “A true friend is someone who, when you are with them, you know what matters most,” encourage listeners to consider the good things in their relationships, before it gets too late – it’s a grand statement, both musically and lyrically.
In a way, closing track, Moments, brings all the various strands and subjects of What Matters Most together to a single conclusion: that Transcendence is always within reach, no matter how unlikely that may seem. Drenched in dreamy harmonies, courtesy of Boston duo, Tall Heights, it’s a gentle, reassuring song of hope, the perfect conclusion to an intriguing album.
Ben Folds will be following up the release of What Matters Most with a 10-date UK tour in November 2023, which will include a prestigious show at the Royal Albert Hall on 13th November. The full itinerary is as follows:
8th November: Bath, The Forum
9th November: Brighton, Dome
10th November: Birmingham, Symphony Hall
12th November: Oxford, New Theatre
13th November: London, Royal Albert Hall
15th November: Gateshead, The Sage
16th November: York, Grand Opera House
17th November: Manchester, O2 Apollo
18th November: Edinburgh, Usher Hall
Watch the official video to Exhausting Lover, one of the album’s standout tracks, here: