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It’s been 10 years since an album of all new Matchbox Twenty material, although the pop-rock band’s legion of hits remains in such heavy rotation on many adult contemporary stations that their absence hasn’t been felt. Also, a greatest hits package with six new songs and two solo albums from lead singer Rob helped fill the void.
Having said that, “North,” out today, feels like a welcome return from an old friend who has kept all of the qualities that made you like him in the first place, but picked up some new tricks to keep things from getting stale. Matchbox Twenty’s strength has always been its strong grasp of the basic pop dynamic where catchy choruses are bookended by verses that propel a story and mood. Early hits like “Push,” “3AM,” “Bent” and “If You’re Gone” all carried a certain darkness with the lyrics, no matter how bright the melody.
The band’s writing dynamic shifted for “North,” and it’s a move that suits them well: Instead of writing everything primarily himself, the gifted Thomas shared the wealth with his bandmates and collaborations rule the day. That allows for more textures and nuances to the songs, such as on “English Town,” which starts out delicately before exploding into a swirl of guitars.
So it goes on much of the album: the band isn’t breaking its mold, so much as flexing some muscles in a way they haven’t before: On “Put Your Hands Up,” a dance-flavored track whose lively beat defies the dark lyrics, MB20 veers into Cobra Starship or Fall Out Boy territory. On first single “She’s So Mean,” which deserved a much better shot from radio than it received, handclaps bolster a power pop tune about a girl that just gets the better of every man who’s drawn into her web.
When Matchbox Twenty first hit in 1996, the members were in their early 20s. Now, more than 15 years later, they’ve grown up, gotten married, and had families. There’s a maturity to some of the material that couldn’t have occurred until they got some more life under their belt. The gem on the album, the understated “I Will,” beautifully reflects how time passes at a startlingly rate of speed: “Tonight looking back on all this life, it’s funny how the time goes by and how, sometimes, it slides away,” Thomas sings, as half of a couple who will figure out life’s foibles together, filling in each other’s gaps. The simple arrangement adds to the song’s beauty. Current single “Overjoyed” uncynically looks at love in a fresh, inviting way, well aware that the chance for true happiness doesn’t come along every day. Conversely, “Like Sugar” addresses a temptation that comes on like the sweetest, most addictive, yet toxic, substance.
Not every song is a winner: “How Long” starts of nimbly, but loses its way; “Radio” sounds like the band is pandering for airplay, but there are far more plusses on “North” than negatives from a band that continues to move in the right direction.