North is Matchbox Twenty’s fourth studio album, and their first new material in a decade (excluding a handful of tracks on 2007’s greatest hits, Exile on Mainstream). The lengthy absence has been kind to the band. Though the music industry has fundamentally changed around them, upstarts like Snow Patrol and Maroon 5 have ploughed a not dissimilar furrow in the interval, seeking to conquer American commercial radio. With the abundance of safe and/or characterless MOR still on the airwaves, these relative dinosaurs will be pleased to discover that their very much imitable style has aged rather well.
‘Parade’ opens proceedings in a perfunctory manner, punchy but misleading to those who anticipate a return to the Bon Jovi-lite component of the Floridian foursome’s pop-rock manifesto. Instead, listeners are treated to a series of radio nuggets, ranging from the emotive balladry of esteemed frontman Rob Thomas to bandwagon-jumping electronic grooves. Lead single ‘She’s So Mean’ is catchy in an exuberant late-90s way. ‘English Town’ has patently bombastic ambitions, managing to shoehorn in brooding intro, layered vocals, overblown guitar solo and, naturally, a crescendo of dramatic strings. The emotional ‘Overjoyed’, while pleasantly melodic and atmospheric, becomes uncomfortably like the work of Ronan Keating. And amid the heartfelt sentiments, ‘Put Your Hands Up’ epitomises the ill-advised foray in to banal dance beats, a disposable nod towards Maroon 5. Elsewhere, ‘I Will’ slows proceedings with its saccharine, but uncomplicated acoustic dynamic, while the echo of shimmering guitar on ‘The Way’ recalls the earnest Matchbox Twenty of old.
On occasion, the album is just there, a husk of the band’s early successes, drained of their vitality. Various banal song titles indicate how generic Thomas and company can get, and North hardly suffers from narrative depth or heavyweight intensity. On the other hand, Thomas (whose daily life presumably takes the form of a dramatic monochrome slow-mo, so tangible is the emotional sensitivity) is on hand to offer his heart rending convictions with admirable passion and over-pronunciation.
On the go now for seventeen years, Matchbox Twenty have returned to reclaim their title as exponents of Billboard-topping pop-rock. Rebranding themselves by upping the pop quotient, they have succeeded in remaining contemporary. For music derisively labelled soft rock, this is an album with few aspirations to redress the balance. Though North is at times insipid and safe to the point of sterility, its glossy veneer marks it out. It is just a pity that Rob Thomas and company often sound like they are imitating their own imitators.
Review by Killian Barry