A consummate storyteller both as the frontman of Matchbox Twenty and as a solo artist, Rob Thomas has a lot to say about love, heartbreak and overcoming grief. He’s earned the right to sing from the vantage of a seasoned rocker aware of his own mortality but informed by a wealth of life experience. All of which makes his new album, “Chip Tooth Smile,” an anomaly in the youth-driven world of pop music.
Nowhere is that more apparent than on the first single, “One Less Day (Dying Young),” which was inspired by the deaths of pop star George Michael in 2016 and Matchbox Twenty’s longtime tour manager, Jason Browning, in 2017.
Those losses, Thomas said, prompted him to look beyond the “romance in the idea of youth” and embrace aging ― particularly in the spotlight ― for its less-heralded merits.
“You hear people say, ‘I don’t want to get older’ or ‘Getting older sucks,’ but the truth is, you lose friends who don’t get that opportunity, and you realize it’s a privilege that’s not afforded to everybody,” the 47-year-old singer-songwriter told HuffPost. “I have things I’ve accumulated in my life that I don’t want to lose. I have relationships with people, and I’ve lost people who are close to me. … I mean, getting old is up to you. I know people who are in their 70s who I would not call old. But getting older is something, if you’re lucky, you get to do.”
That wistful and introspective outlook informs the remainder of “Chip Tooth Smile,” which contains some truly great Rob Thomas moments. Family is paramount, as evidenced by the current single, “Can’t Help Me Now,” which nods to Thomas’ wife, Marisol, and “Breathe Out,” delivered as fatherly words of wisdom to his son, Maison, now a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music.
But the album also boasts a sense of nostalgic fun, notably on “Timeless,” an anthem Thomas co-wrote with producer Butch Walker that purposefully winks at 1980s classics by Tom Petty, Cyndi Lauper and Depeche Mode, among other hitmakers of that decade.
Each of the album’s 12 tracks puts a fresh shine on the handclap rhythms and guitar-driven melodies that have become Thomas’ signature. In fact, he sees “Chip Tooth Smile” as his way of “going back to old school” after 2015’s “The Great Unknown,” on which he teamed up with pop producers Ryan Tedder and Ricky Reed. “I didn’t feel connected to a lot of that record,” he said.
By comparison, the “Chip Tooth Smile” songs fit in seamlessly alongside “If You’re Gone,” a 2000 hit for Matchbox Twenty, and 2005’s “Lonely No More.” Fans attending the singer’s current solo tour, which played New York’s Beacon Theatre for two nights in July, greeted the new material with palpable enthusiasm.
If Thomas’ lack of interest in chasing musical trends or collaborating with of-the-moment artists to score a hit makes him, as he told Billboard in April, not “hip, cool or cutting-edge,” then so be it. He would, however, welcome another collaboration with Carlos Santana, with whom he performed 1999’s era-defining smash, “Smooth.”
Though Thomas joked to HuffPost in February that even he’d gotten “sick” of hearing the song, which won three Grammy Awards and spent 12 weeks at No. 1, he and Santana remain close friends. Both of them are thrilled by the song’s longevity after 20 years, Thomas said, and they have spoken about returning to the studio together, even if they’re not sure what they’d produce there just yet.
“We want to just sit in a room and write some stuff together and see where that goes,” Thomas said. “We don’t want to do something we don’t love. We don’t want to do something just to occupy space on Spotify. We don’t want to do it the same way we did before. … We don’t have to think about music in those traditional ways anymore.”
This fall will bring another milestone for Thomas, as he and his wife will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in October. The two have weathered their share of struggles; Marisol was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease in 2015 after undergoing brain surgery. Still, as far as celebrity couples are concerned, their marriage is widely considered to be one of the most solid — though Thomas, for his part, tries not to get caught up in such media praise.
“Happy marriages don’t just happen,” he said. “They all have moments when they’re in crisis at some point. When we got married, we said, ‘OK, we’re going to be together until death do us part.’ So, in 20 years, we’re not patting ourselves on the back. We’re like, ‘Yeah, we fucking told you. That was the whole idea.’”
Thomas will wrap his current tour in December, but he won’t be off the road for long, as he and his Matchbox Twenty bandmates Kyle Cook, Paul Doucette and Brian Yale will begin their collective return to the concert stage in 2020. While there are no imminent plans for a new Matchbox Twenty album, the studio will eventually beckon once again.
As to what future levels of artistic and commercial success he’s striving for, Thomas has “no expectations.”
“Right now, it’s a really great feeling to put out a record at the same time as John Mayer, Pink and John Legend,” he said. “My writing was informed in a different way when I was 27 than when I was 37, and now at 47, [so] that’s a gift. … I have real-life issues. I’m more stressed out by life. I’m stressed out when my wife is having health problems, I’m stressed out about my son’s senior year in college. So everything that happens here is an escape from that.”