Review Summary: Rob Thomas spreads his wings and finds himself still on the ground.
Rob Thomas is one of the few unique voices in pop music today. Love him or hate him, no one else sounds like him, which gives him a tremendous advantage in branding his music and standing out from the faceless crowd that dominates the airwaves. Matchbox Twenty would have been just another post-grunge band lost in the pile if not for his singular vocals. His voice, above all else, defined the band's sound as they racked up hit after hit. But behind that voice was a songwriter who could stand toe to toe with the best of the day, penning rich pop music that didn't have to rely on the fanciest new beats and paparazzi-magnetic starlet to succeed. In many ways, he was a throwback to the songwriters of the 70's, embracing pop music as a format to deliver his message, showing a reverence for the craft that went beyond trying to score another chart success.
After three albums with Matchbox Twenty, Thomas stepped out on his own with Something To Be, his first solo album. Containing more of his traditional pop, wrapped in new textures, he scored more hits and was an unabashed success. While the band has gotten back together, and has released a few songs since then, Thomas has returned to his solo career before putting out a full record with his band.
Cradlesong is an extension of Something To Be, a collection of traditional pop music that dabbles in the colors and textures that would not fit in with his day job fronting Matchbox Twenty. Here, he gets to explore the possibilities of his songwriting, using world rhythms and different instrumentation, unshackled by the need to fit into the guitar/bass/drums format of a band. The freedom is evident in the songwriting, as Thomas jumps between moods and feeling from song to song, never giving the songs anything besides his voice to pull them together.
The album exists in two halves, each presenting a different side of Thomas. The first half of the album is traditional pop music. Lead single "Her Diamonds" is a fuzz bass soaked slice of pop, with a radio tailored chorus that can be nothing but a hit. "Gasoline" switches the feeling, marrying a subdued but still melodic chorus atop a backdrop that borrows from electronica. "Give Me The Meltdown" is the most pop song on the album, with jangling clean guitars giving way to an uptempo chorus that is irresistible. Thomas' voice bobs and weaves over the music, the melody dancing atop the beat. The trend continues with "Someday", sounding like a more upbeat Coldplay song, and "Mockingbird", a strikingly familiar feeling song that casts the melody atop soft acoustic guitars. These five songs are all tremendously appealing, and give the impression that Cradlesong may be the first piece of work from Thomas that can approach the pop brilliance of Matchbox Twenty's seminal Mad Season.
The hope built up in those five songs is quickly dissipated, as "Real World '09" turns the album on its head. A thematic sequel to a Matchbox hit, the song is a mashup of styles, throwing thick hip hop beats, acoustic guitars, and pop melodies together in haphazard fashion. It is a compelling piece of work, but fails to mesh together. Like the proverbial train wreck, it is not a good piece of songwriting, but it has to be listened to. From there, the album never regains its footing. "Fire On The Mountain" is a slow burn with a heavy drumbeat that goes nowhere, the chorus as amelodic as anything Thomas has ever penned. "Hard On You" is a simple pop ballad, but is almost a complete rewrite of "When The Heartache Ends" from his first solo album. "Still Ain't Over You" tries a darker atmosphere, and "Snowblind" deals in minor chords, but neither bring compelling melodies to right the album's momentum.
The remaining songs are forgettable, throwaway pieces of pop that Thomas can write in his sleep. There is nothing wrong with them, but unlike his best work, there is little to separate them from the rest of his work. Even "Wonderful", which borrows the horn lines from Fastballs "G.O.D." fails to stand out from the bland tapestry of the second half of Cradlesong.
Rob Thomas is a capable songwriter, and he shows flashes of it on Cradlesong. But as was the case with his first solo album, and the last Matchbox Twenty record, he has been incapable of delivering an entire album of his best work for some time now. The first five songs on Cradlesong are all winners, and worthy additions to his impressive catalog. After that, there is little memorable about the album, which underscores the problem with pop music. Once you have a single, there's not much of a reason to keep writing great songs.