Here’s an indisputable fact: Rob Thomas is an expert at his craft. As a songwriter who’s penned nearly a dozen hits with Matchbox Twenty, the band he co-founded in 1990 while barely out of his teens, and who’s moved through collaborations like 1999’s “Smooth” with Carlos Santana to his own solo career, launched in 2005 with the album “… Something to Be,” Thomas knows his sound and his audience.
But unlike most rock stars — and he is one, despite having steered clear of leather, piercings, bandanas and similar accoutrements — Thomas has never been one to chase sonic trends. You won’t find Cardi B rapping on any of the tracks from “Chip Tooth Smile,” his fourth solo album. His chosen producer, Butch Walker, is of the vintage variety — not in terms of age but certainly of stature, having fronted the under-appreciated late ’90s group Marvelous 3 and later earning credits for hit songs by Pink, Katy Perry and Fall Out Boy. Even the cover art harkens to an earlier time in its nod to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” released in 1984, and George Michael’s “Faith,” which arrived three year later.
With Thomas and those who hang on every word both pushing 50, age — or, rather, time — is an obvious throughline for “Chip Tooth Smile,” which opens with “One Less Day (Dying Young),” a song that, despite its title, is actually about living (more on the lead single later). It’s followed by the confectionary melodies of “Timeless,” a tune that wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Imagine Dragons, and a succession of hooky, radio-ready choruses (“Can’t Help Me Now,” “The Worst In Me”) and love songs galore (“Funny,” “The Man to Hold the Water”).
Thomas and Walker are about as complementary as they come. Both have an affinity for the sort of handclap rhythm you’d find on a power pop record. Ditto for such embellishments as bells (gloriously syncopating the album’s standout track, “The Worst In Me”) or the simple balladry of voice coupled with piano (“It’s Only Love”). Even when Thomas ventures into what we could call Lumi-Mumford territory, employing a gang-vocal-like effect on “We Were Beautiful” or an acoustic shuffle for album-closer “Breathe Out,” there’s a sincerity to his delivery — namely in the words — that brings such borrowed styles into Thomas’ own orbit.
At 12 tracks and 39 minutes, Thomas and Walker hit the running-length sweet spot for a pop-rock album. They could have even gone three minutes and 23 seconds shorter by losing the bluesy “I Love It,” which this listener doesn’t really like, namely because it feels like Thomas is trying too hard to show his vocal versatility. What is there to prove? Anyone who’s seen a Matchbox Twenty performance knows full well the vocal weight that Thomas carries on hits like “Push,” “Back 2 Good” and “Bright Lights.” Now 47, he’s flexing into his upper ranges with the sort of depth that could only come from, well, living.
Which brings us back to the lead single “One Less Day (Dying Young).” Its conceit is one of reflection (“I see my life like a train with a one-way track”) and its message is the age-old grandparent mantra: Every day above ground is a good day. But is that day great? One wonders if the collective powers-that-be looked at this song as the one that checks off the most boxes: the Vocoder-esque vocal double, a la Maren Morris and Zedd’s “The Middle,” is there, as is a familiar melody that sounds curiously close to “Timber” by Pitbull and Kesha, the latter of whom released a song called, er, “Die Young.” Derivative? Maybe, though only Thomas is credited as a writer on the song. Or perhaps all of these peculiarities were seen as positives. But if the surest way to a hit was the goal, that song was buried on track 10. “The Worst In Me” is actually the best of Rob Thomas.