In the Offspring’s “Self Esteem,” my favorite hard-rock single of the ’90s, a hapless pincushion contemplates registering a complaint with his girlfriend. Her various transgressions include spending his money, abusing him, sleeping around with his friends, and making house calls at two in the morning. “I guess I should stick up for myself,” he courageously equivocates, but he instead takes her home and makes her dessert. “I really think it’s better this way.”
If you get a kick out of the way pop songs seem to speak to each other years and sometimes decades apart, the “Self Esteem” guy made a return appearance a couple of years later on Matchbox 20’s “Push.” He wasn’t so obliging this time. “I wanna push you around,” the new version declared. “I wanna take you for granted.”
It was undoubtedly the pushing-around that got Matchbox 20 a foothold on the radio (“Push”‘s ubiquity over the next few months points to it as having touched a nerve; if there were people who interpreted the threat of physical violence literally and were offended, there wasn’t much controversy to speak of). But it was the taking-for-granted part that was meaner, more sinister, and, for better or worse, inspirational. This was the purest, most casually insidious kind of vindictiveness, the carefully worked-out manipulations of a passive-aggressive tyrant. (The kind of thing I instantly recognize because, um, I’ve read books about such people.) Anchored by a spare, lyrical guitar line, singer Rob Thomas’s vocal came from the same place as Tom Cruise’s best line in Magnolia: “I’m quietly judging you.” “Back 2 Good,” a later single, was a worthy reprise.
Matchbox 20 is now Matchbox Twenty (the most enigmatic fine-tuning of a name since Ce Ce Peniston suddenly woke up and turned into Cece Peniston one day), and “Push” is no longer what most people know them for. Thomas’s between-albums turn on Carlos Santana’s multi-everything “Smooth” ensured that Matchbox Twenty’s new Mad Season LP would get an immense amount of attention, and a quick look at newsstands verifies that it has. True, I spent the first month of “Smooth”‘s chart run disinterestedly switching it off, thinking it was the singer from the Dave Matthews Band (whose name may or may not be Dave Matthews). You might not think it possible to confuse Matchbox Twenty with the Dave Matthews Band, but it is. Anyway, Thomas is much more credible as a humorless scold than a would-be Ricky Martin. (Though for some of us, even Ricky Martin doesn’t make for a credible Ricky Martin.)
Thomas generally stays clear of both extremes on Mad Season, which is probably not named in honor of the Seattle one-off supergroup responsible for 1995’s great “River of Deceit” single. Maybe Matchbox Twenty did get some grief over “Push,” and as recompense there’s a conscious effort on the new album to lighten up on the finger-wagging, or at least to disguise it better. On “Last Beautiful Girl,” for instance, Thomas is in standard lecture mode, but the airy harmonizing of the rest of the group is played against him—if lyrics just function as shapeless background for you, it’s a song about beautiful girls. Elsewhere there are a couple of stately ballads (“If You’re Gone,” “Bed of Lies”), an agreeably loopy title song that would be fine on the radio, and a horn-driven thing about “the Technicolor dreams of black-and-white people” that isn’t nearly as gruesome as it sounds. Even songs bearing titles that are presumably meant to be stark and ominous (“Angry,” “Crutch,” “Bent”) are delivered as modestly as an Oppressively Emoting White Guy like Thomas is capable of. In short, what lots of people loved about “Push” isn’t much in evidence here, but neither is what lots of people hated about it.
There’s an obvious problem, though. Mad Season runs over an hour (including a hidden epilogue), and excepting the aforementioned “Black and White People,” the other 55 minutes pick over the minutiae of relationships, primarily failed ones. Relationships aren’t uninteresting—in fact, they’re sort of interesting. Except they’re also sort of all the same. The Guess Who, to name a very contemporary example, took care of relationships in a single line from “New Mother Nature”—”She hasn’t got the faith or the guts to leave him when they’re standing in each other’s way”—and that left them lots of room to sing about rain dances, bus riders, Wolfman Jack, and lots of other world-important matters. That’s what Rob Thomas needs to do at this point: write a song about a rain dance.