Review: Something To Be

Something To Be by Rob Thomas

Thomas has taken a lot of flak over his short career - "shouting when a whisper would do," one critic put it; "slick, monochromatic balladry," noted another. "Matchbox twenty's embrace of that aesthetic has tightened into a crushing bear-hug, squeezing all life out of it." Thomas has taken the heat and come up smiling each time: 1996's Yourself or Someone Like You was an instant pop-rock hit, ridiculed for seeming too "cookie-cutter." Thomas followed with 2000's Mad Season - epic and much more lyrically rich - which was thrashed for being "overproduced." Thomas eventually won over critics after the release 2002's More Than You Think You Are, which was eclectic and rocking and everything that critics said that Thomas wasn't. It was also not nearly as good as either of matchbox's other albums, and therefore got much better reviews and much fewer album sales. Matchbox twenty decided to take a short break.

In the meantime, Thomas decided that he would launch out his solo career and really show those critics. Something to Be is the result: Thomas's distinctive singer-songwriter style spread in all different musical directions, supposedly cementing his place as one of the brightest young singer-songwriters on the radio today (he was named Billboard's "Songwriter of the Year" two years in a row, and received the Songwriter's Hall of Fame first-ever "Starlight Award" - created to recognize a songwriter in the early years of his career who is already making a lasting impact).

I tell you all this because Something to Be is more than an album - it's the cautionary tale of what happens when you listen to critics too closely and forget to do what you're good at. Still, you've got to commend Thomas for how willing he is to stretch himself: Something to Be features Robert Randolph, John Mayer, a gospel band called Greater Anointing, Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, and Dr. Dre's bassist, Mike Elizondo. It's a mix of excellent talent from all different genres, and the experimentation shows, to good effect - listening to him break out with bolder, riff-laden, hip-hop flavored pop-rock is pure joy: "This Is How A Heart Breaks," "Lonely No More," and "Something To Be," are the strongest songs on the album, and they all cut loose like a Texan at Mardi Gras. When he slows the tempo, things often still hold together well: "Ever The Same," "Problem Girl," and "My, My, My," all sound like b-sides from an unreleased matchbox record, yet, as Rolling Stone noted, "it still sounds fresh in this new context."

That being said, Thomas' songwriting has clearly faltered. At times his rough-edged, stitch-it-together lyricism works to good effect, but sometimes it's woefully inadequate - on "All That I Am," Thomas channels Josh Groban to ill-effect, crooning "I am the one winged bird for flying, sinking swiftly to the ground." It might fly if Thomas were tongue in cheek, but he's deadly serious, and the deeper you dig, the more you find that it's just emotive words strung together in a vague, Cobain-lite sort of fashion. "Fallin' to Pieces" is particularly vacant, and Thomas' swing-for-the-fences funk shout-out to his "sisters and brothers, of every different color," is saved only by John Mayer's wailing lead guitar.

Something to Be isn't particularly bad, and when it's at the top of it's game, it's something to sit up and take notice of - which people inevitably will be forced to: Something to Be, already gold and still in the Billboard top 10, will have it's newest single, "This Is How A Heart Breaks," featured throughout the rest of the NBA playoffs - an excellent launching ground, just ask the Black Eyed Peas. There's nothing particularly dislikeable throughout the record, at it's worst it's bland, it never reaches the point where you reach for the "skip" button. But it's high points remind you just how much better it would be if Thomas would hole up in his room between albums and not listen to what anybody's saying about him.

Three Stars out of a possible Five.