Review: Ben Folds Reflects on ‘What Matters Most’

3.5 out of 5 stars

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Ben Folds has long since established himself beyond the bounds of his eponymous ensemble, the Ben Folds Five, while venturing into realms of unexpected engagement—from symphonies to soundtracks to fictional works that pursue an even more ambitious agenda.

Consequently, it’s hardly surprising that his new album, appropriately dubbed What Matters Most, doesn’t necessarily follow any predetermined formula. While the perky mindset of the opening track, “But Wait, There’s More,” recalls the upbeat exuberance of his earlier outfit, there’s a deeper dive into more thoughtful circumstances as well. The somewhat sedate “Clouds With Ellipses” maintains that sense of wistful repose, suggesting that Folds is thoroughly intent on pursuing quieter contemplation.

Happily, that doesn’t mean he’s not as intent as always on maintaining his generally amiable disposition. A song like “Exhausting Lover” is utterly engaging, its playful arrangement reflecting a sunny attitude overall. On the other hand, skewered sentiment doesn’t preclude a more precious proposition, as evidenced by “Kristine from the 7th Grade,” the classic pop pastiche shared in “Winslow Gardens,” or the wistful musings found in such selections as “Moments,” “Fragile,” “Paddleboat,” and “Back To Anonymous.”

Of course, Folds has always been adept at songs that share a chamber pop influence, and, as a result, the accessibility factor never veers far from the surface. 

One can also detect a spiritual side to the album as well, not only evident in the title but also in a cover photo that shows what presumes to be a boy and his mentor scoping things out from the expanse of some billowy clouds floating in the blue sky. I rowed against the tide, he reflects in the aforementioned “Paddleboat,” clearly betraying a sense of yearning and desire, even if it’s in a symbolic sense. It’s a feeling of abject determination that makes this album different from many of Folds’ earlier endeavors, and, as a result, a somewhat more earnest offering as well. In that sense, What Matters Most reflects all its name intends to claim.

Photo by Alysse Gafkjen / New West Records

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