In defense of Rob Thomas
It's not cool to like Matchbox Twenty these days, especially if you're a music journalist. If you're into pop music, you probably prefer to listen to modern day hip hop and R&B, like Rihanna or Kanye or Labrinth. If you're on the indie music tip, American pop-rock probably isn't your bag. So, in going to see one of my favourite bands, I know that me gleefully singing along to all the lyrics probably doesn't place me in the cool category.
But here's the thing: Matchbox Twenty, with their classic American power-ballad rock songs, are solidly good. And they put on a tight live show. The set is predictable, with all the band's hits (Real World and Push get the biggest cheers) and some stuff from their new album, which is just as catchy as the old stuff (without the singalong factor).
Rob Thomas, prolific lead singer of the band, has a great energy, charmingly muddled with the awkward phase between young adulthood and middle age. His shaggy haircut and ill-fitting sports jacket reveal a hint of confusion around identity, which fits perfectly with his self-aware lyrics. His grey-pompadour sporting guitarist is a well-dressed guy, but begs the question, is a pompadour a little tryhard? To be honest, he probably doesn't care - one of the benefits of outgrowing your youth, I guess.
Rob - with his skinny jeans and untucked plaid shirt drenched in sweat - is a symbol for everyone at odds with hanging onto their youth while inhabiting a pop world made up of young(er) people. He's a throwback without being a throwback, his unapologetically shaggy hair subtly whispering, "your inner teenager can still rebel while slightly compromising out of necessity". And why not? He's having a good time doing what he loves.
As far as middle-of-the-road pop-rock goes, Matchbox Twenty is the ultimate mascot. The music is well-produced, even live, and smooth as Harry Styles' bum. It's the kind of music you sing along to even though you had no idea you knew the words.That's part of its undeniable charm - like all good pop, it gets into your brain somehow without being annoying.
The genius of Matchbox Twenty is that they manage to pack clever lyrics that reveal the ordinary pain of being human into palatable three-minute tunes. Self-awareness is an undertone (think Dappy's Good Intentions) but it's all so catchy that you don't even realise how depressed you are. It's a vulnerability that's lacking in most of today's pop, where unironic overconfidence runs rampant.
Matchbox Twenty is straight-up pop rock, and as Rob said near the beginning of the solid set, "Let's forget about all the s*** going on out there. When it's all said and done, we'll feel like we celebrated life here at the Roundhouse." And isn't that what pop is all about?
And all through the set, I'm smiling like an idiot in spite of myself. Because it might not be cool, but I love this band.