From reading his autobiography A Dream About Lightning Bugs, one infers that Ben Folds is not the kind of artist who feels compelled to keep writing songs and putting them out there. This may have been more the case in the days when the Ben Folds Five were a going concern and when he first went solo, but as he’s gotten older, it seems like he needs more motivation. The 2010s found that motivation in the form of an album with lyrics by author Nick Hornby, a reunion of Ben Folds Five, and the string-laden songwriting of So There, including his 30-minute classical piano concerto. The latter came out in 2015, so it’s been eight years between albums for arguably Gen-X’s preeminent pop piano player (Tori Amos followers, I know you’re the ones who will argue. Sarah McLachlan fans will probably shrug).
What Matters Most is decidedly a return to pop songwriting, although strings still play a part in many of these arrangements. Horns also show up, although there isn’t much of the fuzz bass and outright rockers that defined Folds’ early career. There are plenty of the aching, sad ballads that made him famous, though maybe nothing as devastating as “Brick”.
The record opens, interestingly, with the sound of a synth keyboard. Folds plays a catchy, arpeggiated melody for almost a full minute. At that point, several layers of vocal harmony enter, repeating the song’s title, “Wait! There’s More”. Then Folds comes in solo, singing, “Wait, there’s more / What used to be extreme’s now a bore.” In case there was any confusion about what he’s referring to, the following line is, “That freak show in the landscaping parking lot / Was oh so funny then / Now it’s not.” Folds is jumping right into the American political landscape, but rather than just rip into Trump and MAGA folks, he gives it a slight twist. After the verse, he asks, “Do you still believe in the good of humankind?” and responds to himself with, “I do”, repeated five times in different voices, blending into a stack of harmony.
Folds returns to MAGA world for “Kristine From the 7th Grade”. This is a classic sad piano ballad, played in waltz style with complex piano and some upright bass and acoustic guitar accompaniment. In this scenario, Folds gets daily right-wing conspiracy emails from a woman he knew in middle school. Rather than go for the easy scorn, he couches his viewpoint in pity. This may not be an improvement, but at least it’s a somewhat different take. “Guns and dead fetuses / Seriously, Kristine, are you okay? / ‘Cause this world can be / Wonderful, too / Do you ever see it that way / Kristine from the 7th grade.” The string arrangement that runs through the second half of the song is lovely, bordering on haunting. It’s a shame that it’s undercut by a character who let this garbage inundate his inbox for two years before finally suggesting, near the end of the song, that maybe she should take him off the mailing list.
Folds finds lyrical and musical success with other topics. The mid-tempo pop of “Clouds with Ellipses” is just lovely. It’s delicate, with excellent harmonies from Dodie Clark and an arrangement that pushes and pulls back on the tempo in just the right ways. Lyrically, the song seems to be about the experience of waiting for text messages to come through. Folds keeps those lyrics ambiguous enough that this is not the only interpretation, however, letting it be a pleasant pop song. Similarly, “Winslow Gardens” is a bright pop-rocker that chronicles the experiences of a couple moving into an apartment complex. The lyrics almost don’t matter here because the music and melodies are so effervescent.
The title track is another song where the catchiness almost overwhelms the lyrics. Big, bold piano chords pound away with simple accompaniment from drums and bass. The song, though, is about sorting through the objects of your life when someone close to you has died. Once the listener focuses on the lyrics, though, they hit hard. “I keep going for the phone / To send you a note with the news / I’m thinking, ‘Man, you won’t believe this’ / You’re gone.” “Back to Anonymous” is much more pleasant. It’s a pleasantly rolling, acoustic guitar and piano-based track where Folds reflects on his life as a minor star. He concludes that it’s much more enjoyable these days, where he’s essentially a regular person who isn’t stopped by strangers who act like they know him personally.
“Paddleboat Breakup” is another highlight. An only partially audible barbershop quartet-style intro gives way to gently strummed acoustic guitar and tom-heavy drum fills. Folds sets the scene with a couple on a lake: “We had paddled for an hour / Back would be way more.” Then the breakup happens. “She said, ‘That’s just great, oh / What is wrong with you? / You wait ’til we’re trapped in a boat to tell me we’re through!'” What follows is another three minutes of Folds’ character struggling to explain what happened, why he waited (anxiety), and the misery of the trip back to shore with him utterly vulnerable to her questions. The arrangement is sparse, but the melody is strong, and the narrative is compelling.
Unfortunately, Folds also returns to maybe his most troublesome trope. What Matters Most includes two “Get a load of this woman, she is a piece of work!” songs. Ben Folds Five’s “Song for the Dumped”, from 1997, remains an entertaining song of 20-something angst, even with its “Give me my money back / You bitch!” refrain. 2008’s “Bitch Went Nuts”, about a girl who just went crazy on her boyfriend for no reason, does not hold up nearly as well. One would hope the five-times married, four-times divorced Folds might have had the good sense not to keep doing songs where it’s all her fault. The aforementioned “Paddleboat Breakup” does an excellent job on this front.
“Exhausting Lover” is a little self-deprecating. In the narrative, he at least loses his girlfriend because of his indiscretion. Like “Song for the Dumped” and “Bitch Went Nuts” before it, it’s also maybe the most raucous, musically entertaining track on the album. A lively, 1970s-style horn section accompanies a bouncy piano line.
Folds stumbles off the tour bus and encounters a woman “In a red, white, and blue halter top” who, “In a low, bored monotone vocal fry”, asks him who’s the band on the bus and calls him a nerd. In a fit of horniness, he invites her to his motel room, and they proceed to have a lot of sex that he doesn’t particularly enjoy. “My mind says no / My body says, ‘Hell no!’ / Let this be over.” She’s also a bad kisser; carpet burns are involved, and a jealous boyfriend appears. While he made the bad decision to start this, it’s mostly the fault of the titular exhausting lover.
“Fragile” comes directly after “Exhausting Lover” and takes a different tack. It’s a simple, quiet piano ballad sung in Folds’ most delicate voice. Yet he spends the verses complaining about how frustrating and manipulative she is, with her childlike behavior that also becomes adorable at just the right times so that he forgives her. The chorus condemns her insultingly, “It’s how you get away with what you do / It’s like crash, boom, ‘Oops / Did I break that, too?'”
What Matters Most ends up being a mixed bag. Musically, this is a strong record. Folds may not be going for the all-out piano rock much this time, but his melodies are as good as ever. Songs like “What Matters Most”, “Clouds with Ellipses”, and “Paddleboat Breakup” are up there with his best work. Doing a pair of Trump-era songs focusing on despair and pity, respectively, are maybe slightly different takes than the usual liberal anger or derision, but neither is entirely successful. As much as I like Ben Folds, though, hearing him come back with a new pair of songs about women who are borderline crazy is disheartening, and it casts a pall over the rest of the album. Some longtime fans might not have that same visceral reaction, and they’ll probably enjoy What Matters Most more than I did.