Drama and Energy: Rob Thomas’s Something to Be

We’re all looking for something, something to be,” sings Rob Thomas in the collection’s title song. Thomas, a member of the popular band Matchbox Twenty, has worked with various musicians, and this is his first solo album, and it is his chance to define himself in a new way.

By Daniel Garrett

Rob Thomas
Something to Be
Producer: Matt Serletic
Atlantic, 2005

Rock music as the opportunity to dramatize both personality and theme seems the method, if not the purpose, of the song “This is How a Heart Breaks” on Rob Thomas’s album Something to Be. Rob Thomas’s voice is pleasant, intense, and yet a bit impersonal; and his music is dynamic, full of sonic power: combined, voice and music, produce a very attractive and marketable sound. On “Lonely No More” Thomas’s diction is clear, and his voice has a strong burnished quality—experienced, fit, flexible: masculine and responsive; and in the song he asks a girl to open up to him as she does to her girlfriend—and he says that he does not want to be lonely or angry, that he does not want the relationship to fail. “Ever the Same” is a rock ballad that says, Tell me what you want me to be, and the song is a vow of love. Drama, energy, and a vibrant male presence, with ambitious songs, songs with sometimes unexpected structures, are what the collection provides.

“I Am An Illusion” opens with what sounds like a traditional blues or gospel quotation, before Rob Thomas begins singing: and he sings, “I am the place where everything turns south” and “I’m not real anymore” and “I am the damage. I am the relief.” It is one of the most bracing songs in the collection, and Thomas’s voice goes from a croon to a shout: does that signify a movement from sorrow to rage?

The vocal performance in “When the Heartache Ends,” a request for support, is sensitive and thoughtful, and the changes in song structure are quick but smooth, and the song reminds me somewhat of 1970s rock. “I’ve been looking for something, something I’ve never seen. We’re all looking for something, something to be,” sings Rob Thomas in the collection’s title song. Thomas, a member of the popular band Matchbox Twenty, has worked with various musicians, and this is his first solo album, and it is his chance to define himself in a new way. Thomas has said that the songs that mean the most to people are those that mean something to an artist; and that he thinks the songs on the album tell a story, one that includes not only his own aspirations for his work but the influence of his wife’s recent illness. “Something to Be” is a song about identity and image. “I can’t stand what I’m starting to be. I can’t stand the people I’m starting to need,” he sings.

“I am the sound of love’s arriving, echoed softly on the sand./ Lay your head upon my shoulder./ Lay your hand within my hand./ I give you all that I am,” sings Thomas in “All That I Am,” which has poetic lyrics of fragility and love. Thomas’s vocal mastery reminds me of that of Freddie Mercury, Annie Lennox, and Robert Plant. (Featured on the song are Hebrew, Turkish, and Armenian instruments.) Thomas sings, “I am the one-winged bird for flying, sinking quickly to the ground./ I am the blind man for a watchdog./ I am prime for giving in./ I’ll show you all that I am.”

In “Problem Girl,” the subject is interesting: the song is about a beleaguered young woman, not a male narrator; and the song suggests common youthful alienation and misunderstanding, and offers sympathy to someone who might be a person Thomas knows or an unknown (and average) audience member. The vocal lines—in speed, in tone, in volume—change several times in “Fallin’ to Pieces,” and there is a point at which the notes are drawn out and the song even includes a voice echo effect. The singing on the entire album is full of variety. “My, My, My” is a ballad in which the narrator questions someone about her purpose and resilience, and gives encouraging words, words of spiritual comfort, but rather than sincere, I would describe Rob Thomas’s singing as self-conscious and emphatic: theatrical.

The song “Streetcorner Symphony” calls for communal celebration, and the singing in “Streetcorner Symphony” is exuberant and the music, which has elements of rock, rhythm and blues, and jazz, is upbeat (the song reminds me a little of Elton John). The piano playing in “Now Comes the Night,” the collection’s last song, is very appealing, and the song, about intertwined lives and time and possibly death, makes a reach for significance.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared inThe African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.

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