Review Summary: Robbie and the lads get crazy.
There’s something timeless about good rock music. Much like the appreciation of simple rhythm (a drum-solo, a dub-step beat, the battering of trash cans and other miscellaneous sonorous objects) rock thrives, in its very basest, on pure energy. It’s amazing how what started out as an alternative to the heavier side of blues has grown over the decades into perhaps the most common modern genre, loved and hated almost in equal portions by the masses, praised for its banality at times and lauded as the purest form of music at others. Perhaps most interesting is the way that rock has evolved and branched out like no other genre has; it dilutes and lightens itself for the mainstream in indie- and pop-rock, pushes its primal ferocity further in punk, piles on the epic in huge cavernous sonic infrastructures with metal and even tapers its chaos to allow order in the form of prog - just to mention a few instances. At the risk of sounding ridiculously closed minded, one might hence proclaim rock as a superior form of music. Or perhaps, instead of being an elitist asswipe, one might decide that it’s not so much about the genre as it is about the sentiment, the emotional essence behind the sound; it’s almost instinctive how we love it. Clichés like the hair-raising guitar solo, the epic synths, the gut-busting bass and the aforementioned rhythms are maybe just relatable sounds behind which lies the true form of rock: pure, natural, unrelenting, unapologetic energy
The universal lifeblood. The sonic soul-mate to the human condition. The reason why I can appreciate everything else by sitting still and enjoying the atmosphere, but feel an urge to get off my ass, shred an air-guitar, jump off things and kick someone when I listen to rock.
It’s a strange idea to consider in an MB20 album, isn’t it.
It is perhaps necassary for me to add here that More Than You Think You Are
is, in fact, the strangest album Rob Thomas and crew have ever released. Thus, the criticism that it has received for not being on par with their other efforts is, arguably, quite warranted. But this, I think, is not so much due to their shift in style or genre as some may assume. Yes, the broody goodness of “Back 2 Good” and the crisp acoustic gold of “3AM” are practically non-existent in this album, and one would not detect a whiff of the magnificently orchestrated full-band sound that was Mad Season
, but it’s not really for their shift of genre that Matchbox Twenty’s third release is shunned by some. What was disappointingly evident about it was the way that the Floridian quintet strayed from their formula: deep, well-calibrated, alt-rock that comes from considerable introspection and a perfectionist’s work ethic. It is why, despite the rest of the arguably forgettable North
that came close to a decade later, MB20 fans still adored the warm radiant opening notes of “Parade” and hailed it like the second coming. Unwell
is this album’s most universally well-received track simply because it bears this signature sound, with unorthodox yet easily accessible instrumentation that settles like a cloud just heavy and dense enough to be taken seriously, while thought provoking lyrics are delivered by Thomas’ trademark contemplative croon. While other bands would worry about treading a path many others have paved before, MB20 doesn’t think twice about that verse-chorus approach, or that reusing that safe adult-contemporary genre cliché. If it worked it was good, so why on earth would they want to rock the boat?
It really sounds at times, in the pre-production of their third effort, that the band took a nice long weird and rather epic road trip, where they headed down south, heard their fair share of Skynyrd and Zepplin, then popped up north and checked out a few gospel churches and finally decided that, hell, they had to give all that shot too. The album is unashamed of its influences, and given their aforementioned comfortable niche it’s not hard to understand why this could come across as distasteful, especially to devoted fans. Yet, there’s something beautiful about its brashness. More Than You Think You Are
is an album of immediacy. Their new sound really slaps you in the face, and on first listen, even before I’d decided whether I loved or hated it I found myself impressed simply by how much they’d shocked me. There isn’t a shred of pretense here - with the first chord of their first track, the first line Rob breaks out, everything is unapologetically different. Opener Feel
comes in hot and heavy, with desperate vocals commandeering a rhythm section infused with a feral intensity, and is easily grittier than anything they’ve ever done before. Follow that up with the phaser-imbued intro of Disease
, and you know that they’re going for the long haul with this one; it’s one thing to decide to play more rock, it’s another to get Mick Jagger to write one of your singles.
This new direction, this wasn’t pop-rock, or even alt-rock or any of the other multiple facsimiles thereof, it’s straight out honest, classic rock – dangerous raunchy guitars, warbling synths and all (I’m not kidding about the synths – they’re practically omnipresent throughout the record). The result, amidst all the chaos, drama and sweat, is a joyous noise. It’s undeniable that More Than You Think You Are
is far messier than its predecessors, and has indulgence by the truck-load, but at their best here they sound far more natural than all their previous brooding and self-reflection has achieved. Listen to Cold
, a continuation of the energy of the openers after the requisite radio-friendly singles, and the pure grit that comes through the draggy distortion of its main riff, with guitars peeking in guerilla-style amidst a burning, pulsating verse that gives rise to a soaring chorus. The key-change there is so stark, so over-the-top that it gives the track just the push it needs for a spectacular finish. MB20 has had standards to meet with their work before, and indeed it was these standards that gave birth to the calculated genius that was Mad Season
, but the relief, the exuberance I must imagine they felt at throwing it all out the window and just going for it – it’s incredible. Their excitement and enthusiasm, you can’t deliberate that, and it’s just so plain infectious too. Subtlety has gone clean out the window; just take a look at Bright Lights
, with straightforward wistful prose coupled with apt broadway piano that bursts into an outro that was clearly intended as an extended jam. Matchbox Twenty have clearly had enough of gloom and are letting their drive carry them to better places, and throughout the album there are moments where they just sound so damn happy
. I mean, listen to the end of Could I Be You
. It sounds like they found Jesus.
God bless ambition, for with their new direction comes a slight dissolving of the pristine song-producing coalition that was MB20 before More Than You Think You Are
, and this is largely due to the fact that for once, it’s nice to hear the someone else besides Thomas taking the spotlight. Doucette, at least in comparison to his other efforts, really brings it on the drums. The same, to varying degrees, can be said about the rest of the band – the solos in Hand Me Down
are soaked with a bluesy feel that finally actually gives them an identity. Great bands are often those who work well as a unit, and, as such, MB20 must attribute much of their success to their stellar teamwork, but it’s nice to finally see them come into their own as musicians, instead of just being Rob’s Very Good Backing Band.
That isn’t to say, however, that Thomas takes a backseat in any of this, for I quite suspect this whole trip down crazy lane was his idea. Its mad how overlooked this is, but rock is something that comes quite naturally to him given his tone, that is, in fact, just so rock
– and not at all because its particularly strong or hoarse (it really is quite ordinary in those aspects), but because of his attitude, brought forth so effectively by his little nuances: the unorthodox vibrato, the deliberate gasping-for-air, the dynamics and his dramatic enunciation). Again, this isn’t something he didn’t employ in earlier releases, but here it’s brought to whole new levels. The man has never really had an astounding range, but he’s always made the best of his gifts, and its magnificent how he pushes it to near breaking point here, yet making it clear that he’s actually aiming for the note and not a half-assed vocal fry.
Strangely enough, I tend to think of the Almighty when listening to More Than You Think You Are
, but, given the nature of its second half, maybe that isn’t really out of content. The aforementioned Could I Be You
, with its finger-wagging-divas outro, rolls headfirst into Downfall
, where the band makes absolutely no effort whatsoever to disguise the fact that their trip to the church on 33rd Street may in fact have been an artistic pilgrimage. The track in its initiation is ripe with traditional MB20 goodness, but the bold heroic chorus sees Cook and Gaynor wielding that deep rich guitar tone in brilliant incandescent chords and deep muscular riffs, and when they bust out the choir in the bridge things just get ridiculous. The track is so stuffed full of epic thanks to the alt-rock/gospel fusion, the very idea of which sounds crass, but wait, forestall your premature criticism because hey, somehow, it works
. It’s not to say that Rob and the merry men have gone religious on us, but in an effort to stem the disarray with a sound tied so contextually to righteousness, it just seems as if they’re trying to impress on their audience that all this energy, all this drive, it has to mean
something (lines like "only love can save us now" don't hurt either). Follow that up with Soul
, a pure blistering rush of a track that sounds like it was co-written by Bon Jovi, and when you hear Thomas’ ardent vocals preaching the fact that everything’s okay “cus you got soul” playing off the mad harmonics in the final chorus, and you’ll find it hard to disagree.
It is quite obvious that More Than You Think You Are
definitely has its fair share of misses – All I Need
employs a rather strange blend of hill-billy and Americana, You’re So Real
kinda sounds like an awkward broadway number with just a smidge of Sgt. Pepper. But after 2 albums of the deep introspective thing MB20 badly needed to mix things up, and, at the very least, that’s what they’ve achieved here. I’m quite glad that they didn’t develop this idea any further, for a more overboard, denser version of this may have proved quite terrifying. Nevertheless, as the slow march of closer The Difference
now plays through my earphones I’m reminded why this record is a perfect addition to the discography of Matchbox Twenty: for all its flaws and misgivings, for its unbridled spontaneity and propensity for extremism, More Than You Think You Are
is MB20s most honest and, all other preconceived aside, most accessible work. Perhaps this exact idea is what the band was trying to suggest with the album’s name – that all that identity and self-labeling has done for them is to limit what they were actually capable of. This was the only album where they didn’t try to live up to their reputation, and decided to actually have fun with their music (and to pull out that warbling synth idea they had kept in shame for so long). It would be a shame to begrudge them that.