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Judy G.

CD of The Week

Week of 6/26/23

    Ben Folds - What Matters Most (New West)

    Where have you gone, Ben Folds? The piano-pop musician has been absent from the songwriting game for nearly eight years, since 2015's So There, a collaboration with chamber pop group yMusic. Folds has been busy: releasing an autobiography, touring and working with various charities to benefit and promote the arts. But you actually have to go all the way back to 2008's Way to Normal to find an entirely solo Ben Folds entry in his catalog. Which is why his latest album What Matters Most focuses on that mission statement - if he's going to the trouble of recording songs again, what matters enough to write about?

    What Matters Most very much was inspired by and reflects on our pandemic times, prompting that title question. Opening track “Wait There’s More” ponders the way our world has changed, asking “Did we really think we'd go back to normal?/Did we really ever think we could cut that cord?” Ben even slips in a reference to the now-infamous Philadelphia landmark Four Seasons Landscaping in this tune and while he still believes in the good in mankind, he’s “Not sure that we can take too much more/Pray that there's a bottom somewhere in sight.” On “Back to Anonymous,” he’s ruminating on wearing masks and saluting health care workers, noting that “it's a big world/With un-famous people who deserve the grand applause/And they quietly carry on.”

    Ben was stuck in Australia when everything shut down in 2020 and had to find somewhere to live Down Under, an experience chronicled on the album highlight “Winslow Gardens.” On a single overflowing with melody and craftsmanship, he looks back on having to rent an apartment and auction off his belongings from across the sea. “Kristine From the 7th Grade” is another high point of What Matters Most, as Ben finds empathy for a former classmate who has lost her way and is now sharing disturbing QAnon-style posts online. It’s much easier to mock the “Kristines” of the world but the narrator of the song genuinely wants her to get out into the real world once again.

    The single “Exhausting Lover” is such an outlier on the album and feels like a song Ben would’ve released 20 years ago. With its falsetto chorus and faux horn section, the jokey song recounts an experience with a pushy groupie and sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the tasteful production and mature songcraft on the rest of the record.

    The album closes with the gentle “Moments,” a collaboration with his sometimes-backing band Tall Heights. Here, Ben decides what does matter most to him: open-heartedness and optimism. What Matters Most is immaculately made and certainly sounds like the level of perfection Ben aimed to achieve, but it could use a few more memorable choruses and catchy moments along the way for sure, as they matter as well.

    Ben will return to the Philadelphia area at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE on July 12th.
    Review by Joey O.

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