Matchbox Twenty's fourth album North seems to have caused somewhat of a stir amongst critics, and not in a good way. Perhaps it's the 10-year hiatus the band has taken since their last full-length studio effort (2002's More Than You Think You Are). It could even be that Rob Thomas and co. didn't ever quite deliver on their initial promise. What's abundantly clear though is that their new record has become a metaphorical punching bag. Unfortunately, it's easy to see why.
Although it's not as bad as some would have you believe, there's little to endear you to the material presented on North. Honestly, what would you want from a new Matchbox Twenty album? Rob Thomas pouring his heart out, catchy melodies and big choruses? Well, they're all to be found here but perhaps I forgot my rose tinted glasses because they're not as compelling as they were before the millennium.
Opener 'Parade' is certainly on par with your expectations and bookends the album as one of the best tracks here. Soaring strings help to propel the track into anthemic territory, while the guitars maintain a faint sense of melancholy. It would certainly be the obvious choice for a comeback single to reconnect with the bands core audience but, instead, that honour goes to the far more dubious and disappointing 'She's So Mean'. Instead of entering his forties gracefully, Thomas assumes the persona of a naive teenager here, and that's part of the problem. If the hard drinking party girl that's the focus of the song really is that much of a nightmare, surely you wouldn't be this much of a walkover? Apparently not; Thomas seems content to moan while using some pretty dodgy lyrics to illustrate his woes ("She's a hardcore candy store, gimme some more."). Unfortunately, the rest of the band seem to toe the line creating instantly forgettable sugar coated pop rock that feels like it's been manufactured for the sole purpose of sneaking Matchbox Twenty back into the charts.
It's in its quieter more contemplative moments where North makes a lasting impression (for example 'I Will' and the other highlight on the record 'Sleeping At The Wheel'). However, to get there you have to endure more disappointment from the likes of 'Put Your Hands Up' and 'Like Sugar'. The latter is the pinnacle of Thomas' efforts to use candy-covered lyrics, while a mid tempo rhythm section never seems to quite spark into life. Thomas even sings, "This ain't my finest hour" here without a hint of irony. Elsewhere, 'English Town' shows some promise, but can't quite make up its mind whether it's a ballad or a straight up rock song. 'Radio' tries to mix things up with a call and answer trumpet section, but again it struggles to hold your attention.
Overall North is a difficult record to like because it doesn't feel like the triumphant comeback that it should have been. Instead, it doesn't quite give Matchbox Twenty's audience what they wanted (that's if they're still paying attention after the band was originally mothballed), neither is it bold enough to capture the imagination of a younger audience discovering the band for the first time. Thomas' lyrical tendency to fall back on clichéd symbolism certainly doesn't help matters. To the band's credit, they have tried to tweak their sound at times to sound more contemporary but there's a feeling this is more out of necessity rather than playing to their strengths that brought them success two decades ago. While North is certainly not a disaster, its sugar coated pop heart will leave anyone without a sweet tooth craving something with a little more substance.