Artist: Matchbox Twenty
Label: Atlantic Records
So much of the discourse around Matchbox Twenty seems to focus on their nascent days of fame and how to recapture it that it’s startling. Even for a band that’s so well-known, there’s an alarming emphasis on recognition and achievement and being seen to do well. I realise that this may not be the intent of the musicians themselves, but something of that mentality does seem to have informed North, an album with good intentions and fine moments but – ironically – absolutely no staying power. Matchbox Twenty make contrived use of their gifts to shuffle out the odd gem with far too many half-hearted anthems, so that much of this falls flat as frustratingly unimaginative. There are a number of excellent moments that illustrate what they can do, but it’s telling that after listening to North several times I barely remember any of it and I’m not all that inclined to go back.
Matchbox, who seem to have spend much of their time on hiatus since first hitting the big time, have had this record gestating since 2010. It has developed into a suitably affable release, but for those of us who seem to have missed the Matchbox parade it won’t do much to keep us paying attention. In its finer moments, it illustrates the band’s capacity to produce quality, undemanding, and even thought-provoking pop music – “Put Your Hands Up” is upbeat and excitable, “Our Song” a bouncy and light-hearted brace, and “Radio” chirpy and involving. The band do far better however when making proper use of their wisdom and experience.
In a 2011 interview, rhythm guitarist Paul Doucette said “When we made those [hit] records, we were in our 20s. Now, we’re nearly 40, and our lives are completely different.” This sense of age is indeed firmly embedded in numerous songs on North. They’re not exactly wearied, but there is a gentle sense of awe and reflection. Lyrically, they seem retrospective without ever overtly addressing the passage of time or maturity. The likes of “Parade” and “English Town” have an everyman mentality, but they’re written with a carefully measured poignancy that evokes grimness and resignation. “English Town” is especially well-crafted with impeccable structure and instrumentation. It is at turns isolated and vulnerable and at others more focused and resolute. The underlying string accompaniments lend the song a tragic, unyielding air, though their exalted overuse at the end is a little OTT.
On the other hand, this approach is equally unsuccessful elsewhere. That same sense of age or perspective means other songs sound hopelessly out of place and even slightly embarrassing. “She’s So Mean,” a slightly less hormone-sodden and vitriolic take on the pining romantic hang-ups of your average pop-punker, would sound juvenile even by a much younger band. “Like Sugar” is an interesting idea, but one that never fully forms. It’s an ill-advised crossover between sultry and tongue-in-cheek that’s too unsure of itself to be alluring and too serious to be amusing. Other songs are too insistent on popular appeal and become cloying. “Sleeping at the Wheel” toys with sentimentality in a very popular, inoffensive way, but there’s something too practiced and pastiche about it. The album seems to rigidly alternate between jovial and stricken, becoming repetitious in its exploration of the same ideals over and over.
All this combines for a passable album in the circumstances but one that’s far from exceptional, and this is its downfall. For a newcomer or a fledgling band, this would be an interesting effort and a name that merited noting. For a band of the stature and experience of Matchbox however, it’s painfully ordinary. The pop-rock arena is bursting at the seams with oceans of artists and bands who can put together a decent melody. The ones who make an impact are the ones who bring something distinctive to the fore and North doesn’t do that. It tells its stories in a curious, subdued fashion and is just warm enough to appeal, but there’s very little here that will entrance or mesmerise. After a chequered history, the band needs to demonstrate that they’re worth taking an interest in, and I don’t think Matchbox have done enough here.
Review written by Grace Duffy