Rob Thomas and company earn a moral victory by merely showing up, but not much else.
What on earth are we to do with a Matchbox Twenty album in 2012? What is there, really, to be said about this band that hasn't been said before? Has anyone ever actually said anything about Matchbox Twenty (you know, these guys have done a solid job of being Third Eye Blind with a better shelf life!)? Are there Matchbox Twenty thinkpieces floating across the internet that I've missed?
It's not out of malice that I say these things. I remember taking four hour rides to visit family in Maryland. This was in a pre-iPod era, so skipping around stations and going through different cities, there was a good chance you would hear whatever song Rob Thomas and co. had cooked up for public consumption approximately 17 times in those four hours, and I can't say that I harbor the ill will that I have for, oh, let's say "I'm Like a Bird". It's just that there really hasn't been much worth saying about them. Ever.
Admit it, the last time you even remembered that Matchbox Twenty was a thing was when Rob Thomas made that bizarre cameo on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia with Sinbad. You'd be perfectly correct to be so ignorant: North is the first album of entirely new material that the former Matchbox 20 (You warriors of the exclaimation point in Panic! at the Disco know nothing of the 20/Twenty wars of the late '90s!) has released since 2002. Even if you consider the hits-plus-a-few-new-songs compilation Exile on Mainstream (which ... really? That's your grand statement, co-writer of "Smooth" Rob Thomas?) as an active period for the band, that was five years ago.
But it's not like a review of a Matchbox Twenty album can be some regular ol' hatchet job of a late '90s alt-rock one-hit wonder. This is a band that put out three and a half albums, and all of them have Top 20 singles on them. They have two No. 1 hits. Rob Thomas has been lighting up the Adult Contemporary charts consistently since he was 24. You have to go into this imagining that someone, somewhere, thinks this record is a capital-E Event in their life, akin to getting a promotion at work or finding out that the plumber knocked $200 off his estimate because you look like a decent guy/gal.
I have to live up to that standard, and at least give the old college try to this review, in that case. If I remember correctly from the Triple-A station my mother listened to back in those days, More Than You Think You Are was a bit of an attempt at branching out for M20 (someone must call them this, right?), with some attempts at dance-pop and power-balladry, and the new tracks off Exile took those influences a little further. North seems to try and provide both sides of that coin.
Take lead single "She's So Mean", which is the first sign of trouble on this record. Now, I don't think it'd be too much of a stretch to suggest that Maroon 5 are a band with a comparable career to Matchbox Twenty. They make pop hits with guitar-and-drums, with influences that come directly from whatever's hitting the zeitgeist. There are moments on North, like "She's So Mean", that sound like Matchbox Twenty are trying to teach young whippersnappers like Adam Levine a thing or two about this hit-makin' business. The problem is, sadly, that they can't and don't. They sound uncomfortable and too old to be singing about an "uptown/downtown/anything-goes-girl".
Similar problems arise on "Put Your Hands Up", which is pretty much "Moves Like Jagger" without Christina Aguilera and the whistling. It didn't even get my hands anywhere close to up. The fun.-esque "Our Song" has problems that are sonic and lyrical, as Thomas sings of a girl who is "a little piece of kerosene". Kerosene is a liquid, you can't have pieces of it, Rob. Matchbox Twenty used to be very capable of pop-rock songs that could incorporate downright weird, enjoyable moments ("Mad Season", "Disease") but these songs just seem like cynical, Max Martin-y cash-ins on a genre they weren't a part of in their heyday.
Everything else, however, sounds like the last decade of music never happened, and that plays to Matchbox Twenty's strengths. Thomas and bandmates Paul Doucette and Kyle Cook can write wistful, mid-tempo ballads in their sleep. The simple, acoustic "I Will" and the sweet "Overjoyed" suggest a matured group of adult men who can still craft a decent song that you and your mom won't flip radio stations over. "English Town" suggests something off a late-era Police record, and hints at a more interesting, honest record that could still be catchy and worthwhile.
But for every "How Long" (a goofy, synthy cousin to "Mad Season") there's a "Like Sugar", another in a long line of songs written by a long-married man about being unable to resist the temptation of some floozy he met at the club last night. At some point, the returns sag down to nothing for Thomas, who gets the sole writing credit on most of the album's worst songs.
Matchbox Twenty earn standard credit, though. These are guys with millions of album sales from an era when that still meant something, and Thomas is well off from that and a lucrative solo career. They could've packed it in and gone out on one of those pathetic "Hey, remember that band with that song from the '90s? Here's 12 of those bands in a row!" tours. The fact that there are a few decent songs on a Matchbox Twenty album in 2012 is achievement enough. But it's almost embarrassing at times when Matchbox Twenty try to fit into the current pop landscape, especially when the band hits certain notes that suggest acting their age would lead to an album worth a career revival.