Ben Folds has never been a true pop artist and he never wanted to be. He became generally popular in the 1990s with his band Ben Folds Five the same way the Barenaked Ladies became popular: Their songs were good enough and just quirky enough that they built a loyal fanbase. Folds has always been more of a song craftsman with a deliciously sarcastic bite.
But the days of Folds making songs like "Song for the Dumped" are gone. The reason is that while Folds is still likely capable of writing and recording that kind of tune, there was also something a bit sophomoric about it all. Folds is now 56 years old and has matured as much as his music has. Meaning, Folds still has a sense of humor in his lyrics, but singing about someone giving his black t-shirt back simply would feel like a reach.
The crazy thing, though, is that while Folds never seems to leave the music scene his new album, What Matters Most, is his first solo studio album in eight years. This appears to be the normal cycle for Folds now as before 2015's So There the previous studio album was 2008's Way to Normal. The bottom line is if you are a Ben Folds fan and want a new album, you'll just have to wait a bit.
Ben Folds' What Matters Most is classic Folds and that's a good thing
So is his latest release worth the wait? The album, released on June 2nd by New West Records, consists of 10 songs, so if you waited eight years for 30 new songs you might have to wait 16 more years. But if you are a fan of Folds, the 10 songs on What Matters Most will probably make you happy.
The record starts with Folds playing what seems to be a Casio keyboard. But the song fleshes out while still holding all of Folds' signature elements: Piano-driven alternative rock with melancholy lyrics. The other songs on the album follow suit with those same themes, but few people do melody as well as Folds so each song stands up on its own.
"Exhausting Lover" is as close as Folds has gotten to a 1970s soul song, but there is also a bit of Barenaked Ladies mixed in. If you ever wanted to go to a Hall and Oates concert in hopes they might cover Ben Folds, this could be the song they do. But it's also a good tune to ride around in your car with the windows rolled down and sign along to.
The three songs that follow "Exhausting Lover" are much more down tempo and subdued. Almost as if Folds thought he might have came across a bit too happy and needed a correction. There is nothing wrong with any of the songs, but they could have been placed elsewhere on the record to breakup the mood.
"Paddleboard Breakup" is the story of two people adrift on a lake with different things to say. The music is a bit stunted to allow Folds' words to stand out a bit more. It's a sad song, but one you want to hear about what happens after the song ends.
The final two songs, "What Matters Most" and "Moments" are beautiful. Like many Folds songs, they border of being a bit too glossy in production, but the piano is still there and there is something always calming about Folds' voice. Somehow, including with What Matters most, Folds has made a living, and rightfully so, out of making music that seems peaceful while the whole time the lyrics are giving you the sad deets about real life.
1. "But Wait, There's More"
2. "Clouds with Ellipses" (featuring dodie)
3. "Exhausting Lover"
5. "Kristine from the 7th Grade"
6. "Back to Anonymous"
7. "Winslow Gardens"
9. "What Matters Most"
10. "Moments" (featuring Tall Heights)
Rating: 8 out 10