The first strains of opener “Parade”, on Matchbox Twenty’s new release North, call to mind the best moments of 1996’s Yourself or Someone Like You: acoustic guitars behind Rob Thomas’s always-heartbroken voice, which stretches out over the most poignant moments. Your high school soul will twinge with recognition.
Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities between North and Matchbox Twenty’s apex mostly end. This is a pity, because Yourself is actually a pretty good album, its mid-’90s radio fuel notwithstanding. Tracks like “Push” and “Long Day” have a vitality that makes them still a pleasure to catch on a jukebox, capable of inspiring passionate sing-alongs almost two decades later. Although the band’s sound grew more strained as its commercial success peaked and then dropped off, Yourself is enduring proof that Matchbox Twenty has talent.
North, however, is not. It’s unclear what the band has been doing during its lengthy hiatus (their last full-length was released in 2002), but keeping up with current music trends was evidently not on the to-do list. “Put Your Hands Up” is apparently meant to be dance music (I cringe even typing that), but like a drunken former cheerleader dancing on the bar at her reunion to prove she’s “still got it,” the track ultimately proves to be just plain embarrassing for everyone involved. Thomas’s voice, so well-suited to moody guitar music, is impossibly cheesy over a club beat, and the song’s lyrics are so generic as to be invisible. “Put your hands up/ It’s alright/ Singing oh oh” — you get the idea. You can just picture an overbearing producer telling Thomas that this is what the kids are listening to nowadays.
“English Town” aspires to be thoughtful but is remarkably bland, and more overproduced, saccharine junk like “She’s So Mean” and “Like Sugar” gunks up most of the other 42 minutes here. If you make it all the way to closer “Sleeping at the Wheel”, you’ll be rewarded with another quiet track that plays to the strengths of Thomas’s distinctive voice — but good luck making it that far.
The rare and endangered Diehard Thomas Fan might appreciate this album. If you’re not among them, then just cue up “3AM” and try to pretend North didn’t happen.
Essential Track: “Parade”