“More than anything, I wanted to make an album that was generous, that was useful,” says Ben Folds. “I want you to finish this record with something you didn’t have when you started.”
Indeed, Folds’ masterful new collection, What Matters Most, isn’t so much a statement as it is an offering, an open hand reaching out to all those wounded and bewildered by a world that seems to make less and less sense every day. Recorded in East Nashville with co-producer Joe Pisapia, the album marks Folds’ first new studio release in eight years, and it’s a bold, timely, cinematic work, one that examines the tragic and the absurd in equal measure as it reckons with hope and despair, gratitude and loss, identity, and perspective. The songs are bittersweet here, hilarious at times, but often laced with a quiet sense of longing and dread: a text message goes unanswered; an old classmate descends into the dark depths of internet conspiracies; a relationship unravels in the middle of a lake. And yet, taken as a whole, the result is an undeniably joyful record that refuses to succumb to the weight of the world around it, an ecstatic reminder of all the beauty and promise hiding in plain sight for anyone willing (and present enough) to recognize their moments as they arrive.
“There’s a lifetime of craft and experience all focused into this one record,” Folds reflects. “Sonically, lyrically, emotionally, I don’t think it’s an album I could have made at any other point in my career.”
Born and raised in North Carolina, Folds first rose to fame in the mid-’90s with Ben Folds Five, whose acerbic, genre-bending take on piano pop helped define an entire era of alternative rock. After scoring multiple hit singles and a gold record with the band, Folds launched his solo career in 2001, releasing a series of similarly acclaimed albums that would firmly establish him as one of the most ambitious and versatile songwriters of his generation. In 2010, Folds teamed up with celebrated author Nick Hornby on a collaborative record titled Lonely Avenue; in 2014, he composed his first piano concerto; in 2015, he recorded an album with the classical ensemble yMusic; in 2017, he became the artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, where he began curating a series of performances marrying contemporary artists with symphonic orchestration; in 2019, he released his New York Times best-selling memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs; and in 2021, he launched the Lightning Bugs podcast, an interview series on creativity and process with guests as diverse as Jon Batiste, Sara Bareilles, Bob Saget, and Rainn Wilson. As if that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Folds also revealed himself to be a prolific photographer with gallery shows in the US and Europe, appeared onscreen in films and television (most recently playing himself in three episodes of the hit Amazon Prime series The Wilds), composed music for a 25-minute stage adaptation of Mo Willem’s Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (which premiered at the Kennedy Center), and serves on the boards of the Arts Action Fund, the Nashville Symphony and Planet Word, a new immersive museum in Washington, DC, dedicated to celebrating the power of language.