It’s hard to believe that it’s been a decade since Matchbox Twenty last released a studio album. In those ten years, lead singer Rob Thomas has had two successful solo albums and the band has released a greatest hits compilation (with a bonus EP of new songs) so maybe that’s why it doesn’t feel like they’ve been away for a ridiculous amount of time. That said, North, the band’s fourth studio album, serves as a reminder that the quartet is capable of making great pop/rock music, the likes of which doesn’t make it across the Top 40 airwaves much anymore. Maybe the change in musical tastes is the only reason it might feel as though a decade has passed.
Here’s a word that you’ve probably never heard in reference to Matchbox Twenty’s music: timeless. Despite what you might think about the ubiquity of Matchbox’s debut album, Yourself Or Someone Like You (now easily located for a buck or two in used record stores nationwide) or his guest appearance on Santana’s still-inescapable “Smooth,” the guy’s capable of being quite the songsmith when he feels like it. It’s how I grew to enjoy the band after 2 or 3 years of having “Push” and “Real World” shoved down my throat via the radio. That same timeless quality that marks songwriters like Elton John or George Michael is present in Thomas. Of course, the inconsistency that plagues those two legends is present in Thomas’s work as well. This is why for every Mad Season by Matchbox Twenty (an album with some truly amazing songs) there’s a Cradlesong (Thomas’s incredibly mediocre sophomore solo effort.)
Thankfully, North finds Thomas (and the rest of the band) making songs that are of Mad Season quality (one would hope, after ten years to write songs.) There isn’t a single bad song on the album, and it’s also heartwarming to hear that the band’s sound is (more or less) the same as it ever was. Over the years, their music has slowly eased away from what could loosely be classified as “alternative rock” and into more of a “pop” sensibility, and the slightly less aggressive style (complete with sing-along melodies) suits the band well. There are a couple of cops to modern pop/dance/rock: “Put Your Hands Up” is very reminiscent of Maroon 5, but it’s also better than most recent Maroon 5 songs.
The best songs on North turn the tempo down a little bit. In an ideal world, the country-flecked ballad “Overjoyed” would be a huge hit. There’s also “English Town,” a song that has a dramatic orchestral coda similar to Mad Season’s “You Won’t Be Mine,” as well as “The Way,” which is not a cover of the Fastball song but an engaging melodic track co-written and sung by guitarist Kyle Cook. The worst/corniest things get is with first single “She’s So Mean,” which is cute but corny: coming across as a mix between the aforementioned “Smooth” and Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” Trust me, though, it’s better than it sounds.
I can’t say that North is gonna win over any new fans. If you liked Matchbox Twenty before, you’ll like them now. If you didn’t like Matchbox Twenty (at least from a musical sense, as opposed to having just being beaten to death with their music) before, I can’t say how much you’ll dig North now. However, if you dig well-constructed, timeless pop music, you’ll not only dig this album, but hope that Matchbox Twenty doesn’t take ten years to deliver another album.