Oct. 1 marked the 25th anniversary of Matchbox Twenty’s debut album, “Yourself or Someone Like You.” The album blew me away on first listen and continues to stun me with its craft, artistry and emotiveness. So in honor of its landmark birthday, let’s all celebrate with 12 more reasons we should listen.
- It’s authentic: If nothing else, Matchbox Twenty can always boast about being entirely real with their audience. Rob Thomas, singer and songwriter, is remarkably candid on each track of this album, despite his typically tight-lipped approach to sharing aspects of his personal life. Although he’s become more and more comfortable talking about his rocky path to stardom, interviews cannot adequately capture the depth of feeling this album provides so effortlessly. Every song on this album tells a story, from songs about the dangers of becoming emotionally dependent to songs about pining for a relationship with someone who is so clearly not interested, expressed in true Thomas tongue-in-cheek fashion. Each song feels real, given that most are at least partly based in real-life experiences.
- Some of the greatest hits of Matchbox’s discography premiered on this album: While none of these songs ever reached the coveted no. 1 spot on Billboard Hot 100, many of them entered public consciousness and Top 40 radio, and a few, including “Push” and “3AM,” still receive regular radio play. Beyond that, the lyrics to some of the tracks have become iconic. It’s not easy to forget a line like “She says it’s cold outside, and she hands me a raincoat” or “I’m a little bit rusty.” Even if many cannot remember the names of the songs, most will instantly recognize those signature opening guitar riffs and Thomas’s gritty yet charming inflections.
- It was the album that almost flopped — but instead launched Matchbox Twenty into the public consciousness: Thomas has revealed in an interview posted to YouTube by AXS TV that before the release of “Push,” the band was going nowhere fast and in fact, were about to lose their record deal. Thomas said to Dave Holmes in the interview that all changed when one radio DJ in Alabama, liking the sound of “Push,” decided to play it on the radio. The idea of a DJ taking such autonomy and ignoring artist-promoted singles seems foreign today, but it did the trick — according to Thomas, the band began to get significant listenership in Alabama, and noting the surprise success, the band released “Push” as a single. The rest is history.
- Speaking of “Push…”: I tried to promise myself not to call out any given song on the album, but I just can’t help paying special attention to this one. There are some songs that light you on fire on the inside, and this is one of them. Everything about this song exudes craftsmanship, from those incredible background vocals, to that rich bassline, to the deceptively simple yet ambiguous lyrics. It’s rare that a song can so beautifully execute a switch from pretty and gentle to the lead singer practically screaming into the microphone, but the band doesn’t stop there, juxtaposing that pained yet gorgeous vocalization with the most elegant and soft rhythm and bass guitar progressions. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the song, though, is the attention to detail. Something that gets me every time is the tiny lyrical choice of being unable to finish the line “Take you for granted” near the end, which gives the idea that Thomas is so overcome with this feeling that there’s a breakdown in the continuity of the song entirely. The use of imperfect descriptions and word choice is another example of this attention to detail, such as using “rusty” to describe a person, which creates a double-meaning: are they “rusty,” as in, they are out of practice, or are they “rusty,” as in ugly or deformed emotionally, but loyal and steadfast? Further, the use of “untrusting,” which already forces us to question if it’s really a word, is in an improper context — you wouldn’t call someone that is being lied to untrusting, yet Thomas does with intention. All of these tiny details both reinforce the main idea of this relationship being imperfect, wrong, harmful even, and force us to really take it seriously and consider what Thomas is implicating here. In short, “Push” screams artistry at its finest.
- Those rhythm guitars though: Adam Gaynor may not be with the band anymore, but his legacy remains on this album. “Push” is a great example of his skill on rhythm guitar, an oft-underappreciated instrument that does wonders on an album where it is brought to the forefront. Positioned between the role of the lead guitar and bass, the ingenious use of rhythm guitar on “Yourself or Someone Like You,” which gives more complex riffs to an instrument typically relegated to strumming chords, is an interesting choice that paid dividends. It practically makes songs like “Real World” and “Long Day,” both of which are memorable for their incredible guitar riffs alone. The artistry that Gaynor displays rivals that of Thomas on vocals, and that is saying something. Indeed, the instrument carries the story in some of the tracks, such as “Kody,” where the interposed guitar riffs give the impression of someone crying out in pain and despair, as well as evocatively painting the image of the sky opening up and pouring down rain. This only furthers the album’s emotional relatability. Speaking of which…
- Twenty-five years on, and it’s still incredibly relatable: It’s rare that an album is so accessible after so many years, especially because in the past 25 years we have experienced an explosion in technological advances, the advent of the Internet and social media, and have experienced more than our fair share of global trauma. Somehow, though, this album still speaks to universal human experience, and does so with finesse, making the 90s, a time when us college students were just infants or not even alive yet, as familiar as 2021. What’s more important, though, is that these songs are relatable on an emotional level; who among us hasn’t wanted to just take a break from the world, or felt unrequited love, or felt misunderstood and alone in a crowd of strangers? Some of the experiences revealed on this album are not universal. We may not all have experienced an emotionally abusive relationship, the death of an infant or a neglectful relationship with our parents. That doesn’t matter — the lyrics have the exceptional poetic power to make it feel as though we have, and coupled with Thomas’s conviction in expressing these experiences, the album becomes one of the most relatable I have ever experienced.
- Thomas’s vocal performance is on fire: It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Thomas’s vocal capabilities — if you’ve ever spoken to me for more than ten minutes at a time, you’ve heard my claim that his voice is that of a “slightly-devious angel.” What sets him apart is not his vocal proficiency. There are several singers who attempt, and succeed, in creating more vocally challenging and interesting lines, including other alternative artists such as Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco and Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine. Thomas’s appeal does not lie, either, in cleanliness, unlike Taylor Swift, who uses clarity of tone to create rich, gorgeous melodies. Instead, Thomas purposefully uses his vocal imperfections to his advantage. Over the years, he’s become associated with syrupy, smooth tunes that showcase his beautiful, clear tenor, but when Matchbox first began, Thomas relied on the gritty, imperfect quality of his voice to create a distinct sound that demanded attention. Love it or hate it, it’s impossible to deny that Thomas knows when to manipulate this sound to create a gruffer image, and that works well with the darker, imperfect theme of the album. I’ve already discussed “Push” extensively, but this is far from the only track on which this works. Other notable examples include “Long Day,” “Damn” and “Real World,” on all of which Thomas exploits his southern twang, its gritty texture and vocal tension to match the grunginess of the guitar riffs and the overall message of the words. Surprisingly, that tone not only matches with the heavier alternative sound of this album, but furthers it.
- It has a harder edge than most of the other albums: It’s undeniable that Matchbox Twenty’s music has become progressively softer, and while there’s nothing wrong with their gentler side — songs like “Overjoyed” and “These Hard Times” hold their own — there’s something compelling and wonderful about these harder-edged tunes. I think part of the wonder comes from trying to imagine individuals as objectively not-tough-looking as Rob Thomas or Paul Doucette as hard-rock artists. More likely the wonder comes from the inclusion of prominent rhythm and bass guitar riffs and a more percussive sound than later albums, which tend to become more orchestral, and later synthetic, in nature. There’s a very organic, home-grown sound to these 12 tracks, and one could easily imagine going to a concert and hearing a live performance that sounds very near to what these songs sound like. Better yet, one could easily imagine the band doing this all “garage style,” exactly as other alternative bands have done in the past. There’s an authenticity in this type of music, and the feeling of honesty implicit in it begs the listener to keep paying attention because this band has something important to say.
- It runs the gamut of emotions — and it’ll hit you right in the feels: I’ve already mentioned briefly that this album is emotionally-driven, but Matchbox Twenty is consistently a very emotional band, and this album is only the tip of the iceberg. Part of that emotionality comes from lyrical honesty. Thomas is the primary songwriter, and for the most part, the songs are written from his real-life experiences and feelings. However, an equally large, and perhaps even larger, part of the band’s moving sound comes from the careful way in which they explore those lyrical ideas through music. Too many times, artists get caught up in the technique of what they are doing and forget the reason they do it. As a singer myself, I have often fallen into the trap of simply following notes on a page, and this leads to a mismatch between a beautiful, emotionally-rich poem, and a musical undertaking that is emotionally bland at best. This is not the case with “Yourself or Someone Like You.” There’s a clear logic between the words that Thomas sings and the instrumentation and tone of each piece. Nothing seems out of place, and the careful and subtle use of technique creates a double-punch of clever lyrics and music that not only means something next to them, but that actually expands upon the lyrics. One tiny example of this is the use of the whammy-bar on “Long Day” during the third verse. The lyrics practically exude exhaustion at life, and the trembling sound that the whammy bar creates — after a line like “Just keep you trembling,” no less — envelopes the listener in the emotional world of the song. Heck, even the labored breath that Thomas takes into the microphone to start the song speaks volumes, and it is that kind of intentional artistry that makes this album especially powerful and emotive.
- It stands at the crossroads of pop and alternative — and becomes iconic in its own right: Many albums that try to modulate between genres — especially the first album from the artist — often fade into obscurity, or worse, alight into infamy. Although “Matchbox Twenty” is by no means a household name, they have managed to hold their own over the years. What’s more, they execute their careful blend of pop and alternative so easily that it makes you question why it’s hard for other groups. The secret is that Matchbox are very technically proficient without trying too hard to make their songs something they aren’t. Thomas has spoken in many interviews about the pressures to follow in the footsteps of various artists and the reality that Matchbox simply are who they are, which requires a recognition of who they are not — namely, that they are not a hard-core, grunge-rock band or a more progressive band that will be genre defining. As Thomas puts it in an interview with Erik Hedegaard of “Rolling Stone,” “I’m not Led Zeppelin,” but he says making music for the masses is alright in his book, given that he is “the masses.” This does not mean the band dedicates themselves only to pop, although some of the tracks on this album, such as “3AM” or “Shame,” clearly lean in that direction. Meanwhile, other songs, such as “Busted” or “Kody” rely on more traditional alternative sounds. Rather than trying to make their songs fit a particular mould, the band seems to allow each song to be what it is, without feeling pressure to change it to conform to genre standards, and the result is a beautiful album without an easy label or definition.
- Each track is original: No two tracks on this album are quite alike, unlike albums by many artists that attempt to fit into two worlds, or indeed, many artists period. This is a trap that pop and pop punk artists especially seem to fall into, and for good reason, as often they feel the need to define their own sound. Once that sound has achieved success, they stick to it to keep fans happy. Although it is true that Matchbox Twenty has a very distinctive sound, they have also never seemed to feel the need to fit into a genre or category, and each of their songs, including those on this album, is different. There is no danger of mistaking anything on here for something else, and, once you have listened a few times, you can begin to anticipate the ebbs and flows of the album, its patterns and tides, without feeling the need to reference a track list. The need to carefully watch for titles on an album you’ve listened to several times is often, in my opinion, the byproduct of an artist’s inability to make each song distinct enough to remember their order. “Yourself or Someone Like You” is not such an album, and that inevitably leads to its relisten value.
- It withstands relisten — and relisten, and relisten: “Yourself or Someone Like You” is one of the few albums that I can let replay for hours on end without switching to something else, and it has become one of my go-to albums for car rides. For all the reasons mentioned above and more, this album withstands both the test of time and the test of a familiar listener. I’m fairly certain there have been times that I listened to “Push” by itself at least five times in a row, and I have no doubt that I would do it again. Further, the songs are complex musically, although they appear relatively simple on the surface, and this encourages the listener to have two opposite but simultaneous reactions. Firstly, the apparent simplicity of these tracks allows the listener to become comfortable with them almost immediately. They’re not so complicated that you have to be a music major to understand them, and they’re pleasing enough to the ear that they’re widely appealing. However, on the other hand, there are so many musical Easter eggs in these songs that, even after at least sixty or seventy listens of this album, I’m still discovering new details that I didn’t hear before. As an example, the whammy-bar use I mentioned on “Long Day” only became apparent to me as I was writing this article. It is this contrast between catchy and complex that ultimately seals the deal on the album.
This album has it all. At times, it’s funny, while at others, it is incredibly serious. It’s distinctly evocative of the 90s without being pigeon-holed by the decade, and remains relatable to this day, partially because it is so emotional and technically proficient. It features incredible group and individual performances and, above all, if you’ve listened to it once, you’ll instantly be nostalgic to listen again. Not a whole lot of albums have that kind of power — especially after 25 years. Now that’s something worth lighting a candle for.