In the second half of the 1990s, Matchbox Twenty’s mainstream appeal and their successful formula fit comfortably within the angst-ridden dissatisfaction of many 90s alternative rock bands. But while they were nothing like my favourite band at the time Pearl Jam, their brand of American rock did resemble some of the shades of uncool that has tainted Pearl Jam reputation for decades. Some fans still call Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas a sellout for his collaboration with Santana on Smooth. Worse yet Matchbox Twenty were called a band with no credibility. I guess this was one of the reasons why I liked Thomas and Matchbox Twenty (and still do) because they don’t care about people’s expectations of them. Moreover they are far from being an abomination to 90s alternative rock.
For me one of the things that drew me to Matchbox Twenty in the 90s was frontman Rob Thomas. He knows exactly how to connect with his audience. He had this amazing knack of dissecting life’s hardships and in particular relationships in his songs. That said, his fingerprints are all over Matchbox Twenty’s debut Yourself or Someone Like You (1996) and even more so on Matchbox Twenty’s follow up Mad Season (2000). While critics weren’t as smitten by the band’s sophomore outing, fans though couldn’t get enough of Matchbox Twenty radio friendly sound. Admittedly even I really liked how the band tinkered with their sound for Mad Season moving even more unashamedly into the mainstream. But more on that record for another time.
In 1996, former band members Rob Thomas, Brian Yale and Paul Doucette of Tabitha’s Secret together with Kyle Cook and Adam Gaynor formed Matchbox Twenty (formerly Matchbox 20). They signed with Atlantic and released their first single, Long Day, which peaked at number 8 on the Billboard US Rock charts, just ahead of the release of their debut album
Woodshed Diaries Yourself or Someone Like You. It was a straightforward and catchy pop rock song which explodes into grungy guitars after its initial acoustic introduction. Here the second verse kicks in with “I’m sorry bout the attitude I need to give when I’m with you/ But no one else will take this shit from me/ And I’m so terrified of no one else but me/I’m here all the time/ I won’t go away,”which truly set in motion Rob Thomas’ distinctive voice which would pave the way for Matchbox Twenty’s signature style and success that followed.
Their debut album with its hits 3 AM and Push eventually went platinum ten times over but in the beginning it was slow to sell. Interestingly their record label Atlantic almost dropped the band in 1997, which might explain the strangely long delay of nine months in between Long Day and the release of Push, the second single. The story of Push and its success can be attributed to someone at the label who noticed an unexpected spike in sales in regional Alabama. A local Birmingham radio station started playing Push and from there it eventually got national attention and soared up the charts but not without controversy. Little did Thomas know that when he sat down to write Push would it attached the ire of feminist groups who believed the song was misogynistic in nature. In September of 1997, a few months after its release, Thomas had to clear up the misunderstanding, stating that the song was actually about a guy who is being emotionally abused. (Visually the music video shows Thomas trapped in a room or pit with no way to escape.) As for 3 A.M, it also topped North American charts, lyrically striking upon a common theme which is ever present throughout the album with its references to anger, emotional abuse, humiliation and or loneliness. “She thinks that happiness is a mat that sits on her doorway,” Thomas sings reflecting upon the difficulty he had getting along with his mother, especially nursing her through her illness with cancer.
Many songwriters have been inspired to write songs that look to distract and relieve us from unpleasant realities. On Matchbox Twenty’s Real World listeners are treated to a generous dollop of escapism. “I wonder what it’s like to be a superhero/ I wonder where I’d go if I could fly around downtown, yeah/ From some other planet, I’d get this funky high on a yellow sun/ Boy, I bet my friends will all be/ Stunned, they’re stunned.” Thomas’ ability to write great hooks and sentimental lyrics probably don’t come any better than on this track. It’s one of those songs which still to this day makes listeners faces light up. It’s unashamedly uncool but who cares it’s a great singalong song.
Fun fact: In 2005, almost a decade after Yourself or Someone Like You was released, New Yorker Frank Torres tried to sue Matchbox Twenty for using his image on their album artwork. He alleged he was simply walking down the street when a photographer asked to take his photo but claimed he never gave his permission for his image to be used.
While the first half of the album is top heavy with radio hits, it is still seemingly carefully curated with an album-sequence that transitions through many different tones and tempo on the second half of the album. For instance, chiming guitars feature heavily on the rocker Damn and Argue follows suit as an angsty ‘90s rock song. Kody changes pace with its acoustic and twangy electric guitar undercurrent, while Busted returns to grittier rock sounds. A nice change of pace again follows with the album’s final two tracks – Shame with its pop sensibilities and Hang with its acoustic arrangement.
There are those who have argued that Yourself Or Some Like You is woefully unoriginal. But I argue that the album is one of the better alt-rock records from the late 90s. Even the argument that the first five tracks only hold up is just nonsensical. For instance, the longest track on the album Back 2 Good (a song about screwing up a relationship and its eventual end) with its orchestral arrangement is an enjoyable change from the post-grunge music typical of that era. Its overall melancholy mood even when played live still really holds up. It’s also fair to say the album relatively still holds up today because admittedly it’s a good sounding guitar record which blends the best of pop and alt-rock. Real World, Long Day, Busted and Girl Like That are four songs that instantly come to mind for their incredible guitar riffs. Worthy of a mention is Adam Gaynor on rhythm guitar who holds everything together. Finally, thematically or lyrically, Yourself or Someone Like You is deeply personal. The songwriting is so honest that it hits you where it hurts. Moreover Thomas is able to adjust is vocal performance to suit the arrangements of every song. There’s no grandstanding, just five guys looking out for each other.
I liked Matchbox Twenty pretty much from the start, and had a massive crush on Rob Thomas for a few years lol. My favorite song of theirs is “Bent” from ‘Mad Season’, which ranks way up at #5 on my Top 100 Songs of the 2000s. And screw the stupid fans who always accuse artists or bands as being ‘sellouts’ if they dare to have a big hit. I think “Smooth” is one of the greatest songs of the past 25 years.
Smooth is a cultural behemoth! 24 years later I still really enjoy hearing it once in a while on the radio. For Thomas it was perfect timing. Matchbox Twenty were working on their new album. They would ride the wave of success straight into Mad Season.