Rob Thomas returns with an album, The Great Unknown, that sadly doesn't showcase him at the top of his game.
There's a track on The Great Unknown, his third solo album from Matchbox Twenty, that frontman Rob Thomas calls "Hold On Forever". This track, more than any other on this album is a song that's Rob Thomas doing the very best Rob Thomas impression anyone has ever done. The chorus is evidence of this:
First thing we'll make you feel better
Next stop we pull it all together
I'll keep you warm like a sweater
Take my hand, hold on forever
If that isn't taken out of the "Rob Thomas School of Songwriting", then I just don't know what is. Blending the catchiness of Matchbox with the 'if it rhymes it chimes' lyrics of his previous solo albums, its upbeat nature has been stuck in my head for days and reminds me of the Matchbox Twenty that took over with More Than You Think You Are. Of course, here Rob is once again making a case that away from the band he's just as strong a force of nature as he is when writing with his fellow band members Paul Doucette and Kyle Cook.
The thing is, aside from this song which is the peak of the album as a whole, he just isn't.
I'm a huge Matchbox fan and I have been for many years. Their songs resonated with me in many different ways. Hell, "3AM" and "Back to Good" made me want to write music of my own, but I don't think it's unfair of me to say that Rob is at his peak when he's writing with his band.
It seems strange to say, I know. I don't think there's much of an argument that "Smooth" is his masterpiece - it is, before you ask - and although his previous solo efforts - namely Something to Be and Cradlesong - had some cracking singles, neither of them set me alight with excitement. As a huge fan of the man's work, it seems disappointing that The Great Unknown seems to follow in that trend.
Lead single "Trust You" was my first worry. The one thing he (and Matchbox, to an extent) just doesn't need to do is try and appeal to a different kind of audience that he's build up over his staggering twenty-year career. The song, along with the opener "I Think We'd Feel Good Together", with their electronic synths and sampled effects seems to take away from the purity of Rob as a songwriter. The Adam Levine/Brandon Flowers style of sound works for them, but it's hard to justify to an act that is so distinct for his use of guitars and piano. That raw sound you can only get with instruments that don't need to be synthesised or mixed to such a degree that the vocals seem almost like a second thought in the final mix. I understand the Matchbox sound doesn't have to stretch across to his solo work, I just always thought that he would recognise his strengths. As a solo artist, I pictured Rob being more raw and instrumental rather than losing himself in a modern electronica sound that takes something away from that ideal.
It sounds like I'm dismissing the whole album, and I'm really not. Along with "Hold On Forever", "Things You Said" is a foot-tapper that nobody else could have gotten away with in 2015. It's got a real 80's influence which should hit home with his most passionate demographic, reminding me of Bros. in its highest moments. It's really evident when Rob turns it on that he can still write great pop songs. The following song "Paper Dolls" is a sound I've not heard him fall into before, almost a goth opera depicting a debilitating relationship with a beautiful appearance from Rooty, sharing the vocals on this eerie track that is another standout. Sadly it's followed by enough filler you can't comprehend it's on the same record.
The album ends with "Pieces", a song that leaves quite the impression on you. As you've read above, the best Rob Thomas is when he's restrained and it's just his voice, the lyrics and a simple melody to piece it all together - the utterly stunning piano version of "3 AM" showcases what I mean.
Can you hold on to me? You're all I have. All I have.
A lyric that's repeated many times by the end of "Pieces", and completes the album on a reminder that Rob Thomas is one of the great writers of our time with a song as soaring and elegant as he's ever recorded. It's one that will stay with you long after you've finished listening to The Great Unknown.
Ultimately, though, the album as a whole just doesn't seem to cohesively work as a record, rather a collection of songs that are stronger on their own than they are together. I've no doubt the singles will be picked correctly, a staple of Rob's career has been the right singles, even across Matchbox albums. The singles will sell this record and is just about enough to see Rob/Matchbox fans through to the 20th anniversary of the band next year.
The high points of The Great Unknown are few, and leaves you thinking if he was just more selective, this could have been something really special.
It's a mediocre album with some great moments when it really should be the other way around-a great album with a few mediocre moments.