‘North’ goes South: New Matchbox Twenty album disappoints

After a 10-year hiatus, 90s alternative band Matchbox Twenty has released their fourth album. Critics and fans are scratching their heads over what to make of “North”, which—though it has its moments—lacks direction and cohesion to the point where fans are no longer sure what genre they are listening to.
The clear and wistful strains of “Parade” are reminiscent of some of Matchbox Twenty’s best material, including lead singer Rob Thomas’s signature songwriting. The following track, “She’s So Mean,” continues the trend with a poppy tune featuring sing-able (if not terribly original) lyrics.
However, after the third track (“Overjoyed”) the album veers sharply from its alternative-rock history to model more contemporary music. While there’s nothing wrong with a band trying to branch out and experiment with new styles, it helps if the band is versatile enough to produce quality material. Here Matchbox Twenty drops the ball: “Our Song” is fun and bouncy, but it falls short of the kind of songwriting one expects from Thomas, and “Put Your Hands Up” could not possibly get any more generic. As if the heavy beat and synthetic additions to the instrumentals do not convey the clear message that this is a dance number, asinine lyrics such as “Put your hands up / it’s all right / singing ohh-ohh / until the sunrise” should get the job done.
The softer songs, including “Overjoyed” and “I Will,” have simple but sweet lyrics and gentle chords. “I Will,” particularly, is a solid track with its lovely incorporation of a piano and subtle strings in the background. While “Overjoyed” is a pretty valentine, “I Will” is more like a lullaby and fits well with the first three tracks. However, any cohesion the album might have claimed to have falls apart again after “English Town.” “How Long” matches the band’s lyrical quality but not its music, and “Radio” comes completely out of left field with an opening that places the song squarely in the era of early rock and roll (as in, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard an Elvis song with that opening). Things don’t get any better with “The Way” or “Like Sugar,” the latter of which sounds more like one of Thomas’s solo efforts than a song produced by the band as a whole.
Past hits including “3 A.M.”, “Unwell” and “If You’re Gone” featured painfully beautiful lyrics with several layers of meaning. While “3 A.M.” can easily be interpreted as being about a deteriorating relationship, Thomas has said that it was written about the time in his childhood when his mother had discovered she had cancer. None of the songs on “North” have the same power to tug at the heartstrings. While “Overjoyed” and “I Will” strike a more tender tone, none of the other tracks come close to the same raw emotion that characterizes the band’s earlier and arguably stronger music. The tracks of the past explore the human psyche, mental illness and human relationships. There is a depth of subject material that is sorely lacking in “North”.
Also missing are the soaring guitars and winning acoustics of the earlier days, replaced by heavy percussion that reappears often in the album. Listen to “She’s So Mean” and you’ll notice that the drum beat repeats itself in other tracks. Perhaps the band was trying to give the album a unifying factor in the percussion; certainly that is the only element that might.
The album has enjoyable aspects, don’t get me wrong. I was raised on Matchbox Twenty, so I’m predisposed to like their music as the anthem of my childhood. Maybe my nostalgia for their older work is born out of an attachment to “Yourself or Someone Like You”.
However, I don’t believe that I am the only critic who found that the album fell short of expectations. While I can enjoy “She’s So Mean” for what it is, there is no denying that as a Matchbox Twenty song, it—like the other tracks—is more fluff than substance. Perhaps some listeners will come to associate “North” with what they think of as Matchbox Twenty’s best. As for me, I’ll stick with my albums from the 90s. In some cases, you really just can’t beat the classics.