Record of the Week: Ben Folds’ ‘What Matters Most’

What Matters Most is the return of Nashville legend Ben Folds to the storytelling songwriter territory that first made him famous after several years of primarily focusing on his symphonic work. Specifically, it calls to mind 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, the final album from Ben Folds Five, and the first indication of where Folds might go as a songwriter and composer. Darker tones and more complex arrangements with thematic elements adjacent to a somber Broadway musical.What Matters Most doesn’t hold a theme in that same way but it does maintain a mood — finding beauty in small moments while addressing the desperate times in which it was made.

Folds has always been a keen observer of the moment, a chronicler of “what’s going on,” writing just the right line for the right time. There’s bravery in attempting such a feat and Folds lands quite a few on this album, including on its ominous opener, “But Wait There’s More” a song written with a bare thread of hope that the constant deluge of “unprecedented” news stories and social developments can finally reach some sort of bottom.

On a slightly autobiographical bent, there’s “Back to Anonymous” about a fading star adjusting to life out of the spotlight, noting that it was “not at all what I thought that fame would be/It was just a small world for a while.”

The first we heard from the album was a snippet of its best song. Late in 2022 a video circulated of Folds performing part of “Kristine From the 7th Grade” at one of his symphonic shows. It seemed to be both a touching and joking jab at the new social norm of finding out a former friend has fallen into the world of conspiracy theories. But when the full album arrived, it showed a narrator who was more sympathetic than judgmental. It’s a hard needle to thread, acknowledging the bizarro world we’ve all found ourselves in post… everything, while maintaining a sense of shared humanity. It’s a job best done by art and it’s the kind of art that Folds has always, and continues, to excel at making.

Below, Ben Folds shares his thoughts on some of the songs.

Kristine From the 7th Grade

“You know, this is a tough one because it’s a very, very divisive time. With the help of technology and a bunch of money… It’s bad. The singer of the song is trying to be somewhat compassionate, yet they still believe what he or she whoever is singing it, believes. If you are someone who’s into Q Anon, you’re going to hear that song and want to kill me. And if you are way on the other side of that, you’re just going to laugh and pile on Kristine. But I didn’t intend either. I had to have it from a perspective because I don’t like that both sides bullsh*t. I don’t like the idea that that two people in an altercation are suddenly both equally responsible. If someone’s stabbing an old lady and they’re like, ‘Well, we were in a fight.’ No, you were stabbing an old lady! So I felt like Kristine needed that honesty. I was really careful. The last line says, ‘It’s a short, beautiful life. Do you ever see it that way?’ If I were to keep talking, you don’t think about her to answer that. But if I stop, then you think, ‘Of course!’ whoever Kristine or Fred, whoever these people are, of course they have best friends, they have children, they have a dog. They go out and look at the flowers in their backyard. But I expect it to have a limited success rate with people understanding that the singer does not know everything and might be wrong. But the song has to come from a point of view because you can’t just say, ‘But I might be wrong.’ No one does that! So if you really have empathy for both sides, you have to be honest about who people are.”

Back To Anonymous

“I planned on it being my last record. I’m thinking that I’m not going to be able to write musicals and operas if I’m still dabbling in being a 56 year old dude trying to be a rock star. Really, what I need to do is promise myself that I’ll get off of that and I’ll spend all my time on musical or opera. And when I do that, that I promise myself that it will be my best work, period. Otherwise, I won’t be interested in doing it. And that’s scary. That kind of promise to yourself is super scary, especially at the expense of going, ‘Well, I make a better living at this, but I have to stop in order to do that.’ And so I don’t know, maybe I’ll go talk to Yusuf Cat Stevens and ask him how he did that.”

Exhausting Lover

“I don’t see the record really as pop music. Relevant, pop music is for kids. And it’s until they mate. And once they’ve mated and procreated, it’s not for them anymore. It’s now for their kids. And they can try to act cool if they want to relive the glory years. But the kids are already writing code into the music to make sure they don’t understand it. That’s just the way it works. So if you’re my age and you want to keep making a living doing what you’re doing, you can be a ‘heritage artis’  and go out and play your old sh*t and that’s fine. Heritage Artist is bruising, but it’s true. Or you can do something that’s just what can you do, that people can’t do anymore. So, in essence, there’s something sort of Steely Dan about this record in a small way. I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s as good as what Steely Dan did. But the point is, to me was that it was craft at the edge of my ability. To get the least amount of credit for the craft. Because great craft shouldn’t be like ‘This is great craft!’ because that means that you’re paying attention to the wrong thing. It needs to be seamless. Humble. Space between the notes. Good voice leading. Economical lyrics. Impeccable timing of lines. And then a beauty about a record that is not there to say ‘I hurt, therefore I make you hurt.’ That was a very 90’s thing. Like this is a screeching sound. I hurt. When you hear this. You’ll hurt too. That’s fine. But my thing was like, what can I offer? How can this be generous? I’m making something that once my generation, and I’m one of the few that do it, are gone then people have a new craft. Ansel Adams was still printing up until a certain point. And at that point he was printing, it was the state of the art. And once his printers who worked for him died, it didn’t exist that way anymore. You know, that’s fine. We just move on. But I feel like that guy now, so I wanted to make an album that did that.”

But Wait There’s More (when asked how he handles social media and news consumption)

“Well, I think I’m just as subject to and addicted to it, but maybe more than some people. I don’t know if adrenaline junkie is the right term, but something has to always be happening (for me). So, I’m really a prime target for ‘But wait, there’s more.’ It’s like ‘This terrible thing has happened!’ ‘They’ve gone crazy!’ Every day is ‘unprecedented.’ So I don’t know how I deal with it except to try to laugh at it some and remember that, people that don’t agree with you aren’t evil and that people have been thinking the end of the world is coming for a long time. And it probably is.

My favorite podcast interview is with Dr. Roger Payne, and he essentially saved the whales. Now, he would argue with me about that, but he did, and it’s a long story of how he did, but I know there would be no humpback whales if it were not for Roger Payne. Really impressive guy. And so I ask him ‘How long we got?’ And he says 150 years. It’s like ‘Really that’s just your opinion? He goes ‘A lot of my scientist friends’ opinions too.’ (And I say) So what does your friend David Attenborough think? He goes ‘Yeah, probably 150 years.’ And you guys are just sitting on this?? That’s good reason not to have kids, right? (We were) talking about creativity and he said, ‘Scientists have done all we can do and we’ve probably done too much.’ He said, what we need now is to tell the story of what’s real. And everyone has hijacked the story machine to tell things that aren’t real. In his opinion, scientific advancements could have stopped easily 100 years ago and just let people catch up with them for 200 years. Just explain them, tell the story, show how powerful they are, how deadly they are, how lifesaving they are, and then eventually evolutionary latency of human beings will catch up with the novel environment that we’ve created. And until then ‘But Wait, There’s More’ people…”

What Matters Most

“I was thinking about that the whole pandemic. Everyone was. Like what matters? What do I care about the most? It’s why whatever the percentage of the workforce just left or changed jobs. People were questioning what was the most important thing. (It was originally titled) “But Wait, There’s More” for a year and the album was basically finished. Luckily, I changed the title because I think that it makes a better feel to the record. I saw someone post online today on some ‘happiness, meaningful’ site and they’re like, ‘Ask a friend what matters most to them.’ And, they’re not promoting my album, it’s just in the air.”