Album Reviews

Ben Folds – What Matters Most

(New West) UK release date: 2 June 2023

His fourth album is filled with the sort of songs that made his name – wry, bittersweet little chamber pop numbers heavy on piano and strings

Ben Folds - What Matters Most When Ben Folds last released some music, Artificial Intelligence was a Steven Spielberg movie, Brexit was a term that had not yet been coined, and Donald Trump was best known as the orange man who presented the US version of The Apprentice. The past, it seems, is not just a foreign country but a whole different universe.

In fact, apart from a couple of collaboration albums (Lonely Avenue with novelist Nick Hornby and So There with the New York sextet ensemble yMusic), it was back in 2008 that Folds last released a solo album, Way To Normal. It’s impressive then, that within a couple of bars of his fourth solo album, it’s like he’s never been away.

For What Matters Most is filled with the sort of songs that made Folds’ name – wry, bittersweet little chamber pop numbers heavy on piano and strings. Most of all though, Folds is a master lyricist. Possibly only The Divine Comedy‘s Neil Hannon could rival Folds for his ability to tell a story in song format, and there are many little vignettes here that you can imagine in a short story collection.

So there’s Exhausting Lover which tells the story of a hook-up with “a girl in a red white and blue halter top…thick glasses like mine, and a low, bored monotone fry” which ends with Folds being chased out of the motel room by the girl’s boyfriend as “some dude live-tweeted as I ran half-naked past a Cracker Barrel”. It’s these little lyrical attention to detail that makes Folds a master of his craft.

On a more serious note is Kristine From The 7th Grade, about an old classmate who becomes sucked into conspiracy theories and culture war discourse online – spending her time sharing a “deluge of memes, cryptic dark Bible quotes, guns and dead foetuses”. It’s set to one of Folds’ most heartbreaking piano melodies, making his advice to take in “the smell of wet leaves, and warm smiles and hellos”, even though Kristine sounds terminally down the rabbit hole, all the sadder.

That’s not the only song which reflects the world’s recent problems. The single Winslow Gardens references the apartment block in Sydney that Folds and his wife had to quickly move into in March 2020 when “the whole world was closing” and his Australian tour was cancelled. Back To Anonymous was written at the height of the pandemic and is a bittersweet look at the way anonymity became a state for everyone in an uncertain world, while opening track But Wait There’s More marries a jerky piano melody to horns and drums, while asking “do you still believe in the good of humankind? I do”.

There’s no big anthem like Landed, and sometimes you do yearn to hear Folds properly hammering his piano like in his early solo days or during his time with Ben Folds Five. For, as nice as ballads like Fragile are, or as diverting as a whimsical tale like Paddleboat Breakup can be, it does mean that the album can be a bit one-note at times.

Folds hinted in an Instagram post a few months ago that What Matters Most may be his last album, and he’s eyeing a move into writing musical theatre. That would be a move which would suit him, but it would also be a shame if this is the last we see of Ben Folds the songwriter. If it is though, What Matters Most makes for a decent signoff for a stellar career. Most makes for a decent sign-off for a stellar career.

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Ben Folds – What Matters Most
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Ben Folds – Way To Normal
Ben Folds @ Academy, Sheffield