Atlantic Records, 2012
The last time Rob Thomas made a genuine album with his band, it was 2002. The album was called More Than You Think You Are and it released the day after I turned twelve. Back then, I hadn’t become the music enthusiast I am now, but I still loved Matchbox Twenty: I always had, ever since the days when my brother used to play Yourself or Someone Like You on car rides to school in the morning. Their brand of easily digestible, melodic alternative-rock appealed to me greatly, and the fact that they had three albums where I liked ALL of the songs (a common occurrence for me now, but not so much back then) made them, fairly easily, my first "favorite band." If the charts were anything to go by, a lot of people agreed with me. Over the next year or two, More Than You Think You Are would spawn a handful of singles that became nearly ubiquitous. You couldn't turn on the radio without hearing the elegiac banjo acoustics of "Unwell," the Mick Jagger-assisted blues-rock of "Disease," or the piano-laced bombast of "Bright Lights," and I was glad for it. In a sea of pop, rap, and R&B that I didn't care for at all, Rob Thomas and the boys were an old standby that I was happy to see achieve continued success.
As I got more and more into music throughout 2003 and 2004, Matchbox's records remained in fairly constant rotation, and I remember anxiously hoping for the day that the band would announce their plans to put out another LP.
I didn't know that I was about to wait for a long, long time.
Luckily, North is the best record Rob Thomas has made since 2002, and offers rock-solid evidence that the frontman is always better with his trusty band of brothers at his back. Opener "Parade" is an achingly gorgeous ode to the times of our life that fly by far too quickly, and it instantly recalls the best moments of the MB20 discography. "When the slow parade went past/And it felt so good you knew it couldn't last/And all too soon the end was gonna come without a warning/And you'd have to just go home," Thomas croons, seemingly bottling up a decade's worth of bygone memories and missed opportunities into one knock-out beauty of a song. The same can be said for "Overjoyed," a signature Rob Thomas love ballad that could have fit easily on the band's last album. Both tunes are safe, playing to the same formula that the band has utilized throughout their entire career: emotional, heart-on-your-sleeve pop-rock that's easy to like and hard to hate. Surrounding the lead-off single (the insanely catchy "She's so Mean") at the album's kick-off, "Parade" and "Overjoyed" struck me as exactly what I wanted "North" to be, and exactly what I thought it would fall short of being: nostalgic while also sounding fresh, reminiscent of past glories while also forging new ones. And most of all, NOT like a Thomas solo album. I thought that, if the album stuck in that same safe but oh-so-appealing vein throughout, it would be on the fast-track towards my end-of-the-year top ten.
Sadly, "North" has a couple missteps. The jarring "Put Your Hands Up" is about as bad as you would expect a song with that title to be, and breaks the reverie of the opening trio with an incredibly misguided attempt at a dance anthem. The lyrics are Rob Thomas's most cringe-worthy to date, a mélange of outdated pop music clichés that would fail even with the most tongue-in-cheek delivery, and with an earworm hook so gratingly catchy that listeners might do better just to delete the song and replace it with a bonus track. Luckily, the other two tracks in the “dance” vein, the groovy synth-based "How Long" and the dark-flavored pop of "Like Sugar," work out much better, successfully blending that old '90s radio rock sound with today's more electronic influence. The former, especially, is infectious.
Still, the best songs here are the ones that land closest to the way the band used to do things. "Our Song" and the brassy "Radio" both have the kind of driving beat and rock sensibility that Thomas's solo records mostly lacked, while the ringing guitar lines and expansive atmospherics of "The Way" (which sees guitarist Kyle Cook taking lead vocals) make the song an undeniable highlight. “English Town” is the set’s most adventurous moment, an orchestral, multi-layered mid-tempo rocker that builds from a haunting piano intro (straight out of Sia's "Breathe Me") into a haunting but all-too-brief explosion of horns. And "Sleeping at the Wheel" closes the album in the same vein that "Parade" opened it - with a gorgeous ballad that is very much in the band's wheelhouse, but which hits hard nonetheless.
It's never easy for a band to come back after an extended absence, be it four years, eight years, or a decade. With North, there's some obvious rust that Thomas and co had to shake off, and the result, while very enjoyable, doesn't quite live up to the stuff they were putting out in their heyday. That said, there are a lot of great songs here, and in a year that has been lacking in great pop and pop rock albums, this record is a very welcome addition. At their best, the songs from North can still stand up against anything Rob Thomas has ever written: "Parade" is as solid as "3AM" ever was, "Radio" could go shot for shot with "Long Day" any day of the week, and if "Overjoyed" doesn't replicate the smash hit success of "Unwell," then you can only blame the shifting music scene. There are a few duds here, but what Matchbox Twenty come up with the rest of the time is a lovable bunch of songs that will almost certainly land somewhere on my end-of-the-year list, a collection that is better and more consistent than either of the ones Thomas put together on his own, and one that announces the return of one of the best bands in radio rock: I only hope that, this time, they don't spend a decade on the bench.