Ben Folds “What Matters Most” is his newest album, finally released after several years. Is it praiseworthy? Douglas Moore investigates.
I have never put myself in the camp of any genre of music. Many of my friends would stick to their specific camps of music calling all other types bad or unworthy whereas I would simply laugh at their limited approach while I would go from INXS to Motorhead in one sitting. I did not care about the type of music that was being presented; If it was good it was good.
Ben Folds is a singer-songwriter that also does not see limits with musical categories. Ben’s music always has a musical flow and great lyrical content. While some might say that he can be a little vulgar at times and shoots from the hip I kind of like that about him. Ben Folds is the type of guy that will wear gym pants to a party just because someone told him it wasn’t allowed.
This kind of personality is part of what draws me to him because you never know what he is going to come up with next. Songs like “F10-D-A” showcase his ability to take something of a mature nature and incorporate it into a great melody and make you love the song all while laughing at the parity. This kind of music-writing ability is hard to find and for me much appreciated.
What Matters Most is the first album from Ben in 8 years. Being that it has been that long I didn’t know what to expect from him. As you know 8 years is a long time in life and things change. I for sure hoped that age hadn’t taken away the witty and magical songwriting that Ben has given us throughout his career. In this essay, I set out to see if Ben still has the verve from past years.
From the first track “Clouds With Ellipses,” I could tell that Ben still had that mojo plus some. I think the better musicians of the world age like fine wine. As they get older and wiser their songwriting gets more mature. “Clouds and Ellipses” is a great opening track that showcases solid piano work and accompanied instrumentation.
I kind of get a Paul Simon vibe with this song and the way the vocals track with the song which is not a bad thing considering the pedigree stems from Paul Simon. The song talks about the little things in life and savoring these moments.
“Exhausting Lover” is a song about getting older and the song is a more pop-driven track. Talking about not saying YOLO no more in this song I found it very comical as I hated that saying anyway. The drum and horn work on this track gives the song a more dynamic drive than other songs on the album.
As we move on through the tracks “Fragile” and “Kristine From The 7th Grade” they reminisce about the past and now being a middle age man. While Ben doesn’t go into full detail about his past in these songs he does give you enough to make you think about your past and how life changes so much as you age. I have to give kudos to the piano work in “Kristine From The 7th Grade” as it fits the track rather well and gives this song the emotion it deserves.
“Back To Anonymous” talks about Ben’s time in the spotlight years ago with Ben’s Folds Five and how he was very popular and well-known then. He compares his past with how his life is now while being able to go places without being noticed or bothered. His main point with this track is a thank you card for his fans over the years and how he appreciates all of it but likes his simple life now. I appreciate the Harmonica’s work on this track as it fits the song well and gives it depth and feeling.
“Winslow Gardens” starts almost like a Bruce Springsteen song. It is probably the closest song sound-wise to his earlier work that Ben is most known for. The song mostly talks about how life has changed for Ben and compares his life now with his life in his heyday. Having both a woe and joy dynamic to this song gives it a well-rounded feel.
“Paddleboat Breakup” is a composition about a couple’s relationship ending while being trapped on a lake. Simple as this topic is the song itself musically is one of my favorites on the album. Its barbershop quartet-style vocals at the beginning transition to an acoustic strumming guitar with a cool chorus added to give it a permeating sound quality.
This song features a great melody that gives a cool vibe to a breakup ballad that almost makes you forget the topic. It features a dramatic feel that is an addicting listen. A bonus is that every instrument is given a place to showcase its talent.
“What Matters Most” is the featured number and it deals with how we age while not being in the limelight anymore. It’s a plain topic and Ben keeps it that way. The track has good piano work and an admirable melody while delivering an uncomplicated time signature about life and getting older. I can relate to that!
“Moments” is the closing song and is about letting you absorb the good times of your life and being unapologetic about feeling these moments – not letting any dark times take away from them. It is another tune with a grand melody.
This would not be a complete music review if I did not talk about the recording quality of this album. Overall the studio work is done well. Although nothing stands out sonically to blow you away the overall tonal balance is solid. The bass is well-defined and punchy when needed and not overpowering the midrange. The treble is detailed; allowing cymbals to shine and resonate. Instruments like harmonica, string instruments, and horns are allowed to sit in their place in the mix giving them added life while sounding natural.
With an album of this nature, the midrange is the most important to get right and here we have an admiral job done. Vocals have a natural sound while not being overly processed with a minimum amount of sibilance.
Acoustic guitar sounds lifelike while Ben’s piano work sits well in the blend. Overall I found this album to sound pretty natural and has good soundstage and imaging properties. The best part of the audio quality of this recording is that it is not brick-walled like a lot of newer music is.
I have been a Ben Folds fan for years as I think his songwriting is great. His lyrics have always either had me thinking about life and living or cracking me up with his wittiness. In the world we live in today where the news shows only the bad in the world, the headlines make you want to start an antidepressant regimen. Having an album that simply talks about life and getting older without any political stances or views is a great vacation from all that’s currently going on in the world.
Some fans might not get it and want for his earlier music but I simply see it as a musician growing older and wiser in his writing. I believe this collection is a must-listen for anyone seeking such music.
Ben Folds’s “What Matters Most” is available on CD and vinyl from major music retailers and on all streaming platforms. My review was done with the Qobuz 24-bit/96kHz version of this album.
WHERE the MUSIC BEAT meets the AUDIOPHILE ELITE !
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