After the surprisingly depressing turn Rob Thomas’s blend of pop music took on 2009’s Cradlesong, it’s nice to hear the man actually enjoying himself as his band Matchbox Twenty returns to the pop arena. North, the band’s first full album of new material since 2002’s More Than You Think You Are, is essentially a fresh start – most kids listening to top 40 today probably think “3 a.m.” is “classic alternative,” and Thomas has long ago used up any mainstream dominance he built up with the massive success of 2005’s Something To Be (the album which, it should be said, totally eclipsed everything he’d ever done with Matchbox Twenty in the first place.) It’s fitting to see “She’s So Mean” billed as a “smash hit” on YouTube despite only having reached the top 50 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band hasn’t seen a top 10 hit since 2003, and their #1 hit “Bent” in 2000 owed more to Rob’s success on Santana’s “Smooth” than it did to the quality of anything on Mad Season.
These days you’re only as good as what you’ve given us lately, so Matchbox Twenty arrives with no baggage, allowing the band to at least somewhat reinvent the wheel. “Parade” opens the album on a downbeat vibe, suggesting a potential second single which wouldn’t have to rely on the gimmicks “She’s So Mean” wears so proudly on its sleeve. But “Mean” successfully takes a page from the post-“Moves Like Jagger” playbook, and it’s got by far the better hook. It may be cheesy as all hell, but the band’s done cheesy before. There’s enough rock in this pop to make the song palatable. You may hate it at first, but the hook will win you over. By the time you get to the chorus it’s clear why Rob Thomas used to have that reputation as a peerless pop hitmaker.
But a hit’s not what it used to be, and you’ve got to be able to do it again and again in order to sustain ITunes life. So what about the rest of North – is this a here today gone tomorrow album? From a pop hits perspective, that’s probably going to be the case. The songs on the album are top notch, but the band’s playing like journeymen when they haven’t built up the album backstory to hold that up. This is only their fourth album in 16 years. And after “She’s So Mean,” the other pop attempts tend to sound like retreads. “Put Your Hands Up” and it’s “whoah-oh-whoah-oh” chorus could stand a chance, but it’s a bit too close to Adam Levine territory for comfort. “Our Song” is upbeat but relatively tuneless. And “I Will,” the album’s strongest potential radio ballad, sounds too much like “Hey There Delilah” for comfort. But “English Town” pushes their sound palate in the right direction, standing as this album’s “Fire on the Mountain” – if that song could get a radio push, it’d be worth the overplay. But it won’t happen.
Matchbox Twenty’s North is a solid pop album which is going to get the band some well-earned attention as the first single plays itself out. But unless the band is ready to get out there and continue to write new music on a more consistent basis, they’re unlikely to ever regain anything close to power status in a changed industry. An album every three or four years won’t cut it, let alone one every decade. In a “what have you done for us lately?” world, most undiscerning pop fans are already looking for the next “Call Me Maybe” and it’s not here. Those of us who enjoyed the band’s first three albums, however, can appreciate that little has changed in the decade they’ve been gone. Rob Thomas still writes songs which stick In your head, and the band seems to be having fun. Whether this signals a new beginning or a fitting coda for their career, North is still worth a full-album listen.