Rob Thomas Navigates a Modern Rockless World With Ease

Rob Thomas
Rob Thomas Photo by Randall Slavin
You hear his voice on the radio — dangling above one of his many pristine and radio-ready tunes — and instantly know it’s him.

Plagued with bravado, his singing has a slight growl to it. At times, it sounds like he’s trying his best not to swallow his microphone. He’s melodramatic, or maybe he’s merely caught up in the moment. After all, he is a rock star.

There’s an irrevocable immediacy to Rob Thomas. Watch any performance from his arena-selling glory days with Matchbox Twenty and it’s clear: The man belongs up on a stage.

Though he’s often bunched up with the rest of the adult contemporary gang of the late ’90s to mid-aughts (Train, Counting Crows), Thomas’ signature poppy songwriting alone proves he’s in a league of his own.

“I’ve always been a radio kid,” he said, while announcing his newest and fourth solo record, Chip Tooth Smile. “I grew up listening to all of this music from the late '70s and early '80s in the car with my mom. I knew every lyric to every song on the air. There’s a sensibility to the way I write that’s been informed by '80s songwriters, especially. I feel like I grow each year. Hopefully, that trend will continue until I am ready to stop.”

Thomas is mostly known for his biggest hits with '90’s alt-rock giants Matchbox Twenty and the puzzling, yet somehow happy, rock-salsa marriage he ordained with Santana on the smash 1999 hit “Smooth," which to this day is the second-biggest song ever in Billboard chart history.
Thomas has since become a modestly successful solo artist, living on the sidelines of pop, happy to keep doing what he loves most — writing songs. In that regard, he’s penned hits for Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Marc Anthony, and many others.

From the start of his career with Matchbox Twenty, the three-time Grammy Award winner built up a fan base by staying true to his pop sensibilities. The later success of “Smooth” allowed him to easily navigate through different musical moods, transcending his postgrunge days and adding new colors to his work, both with the band that started it all for him and as a solo artist.

Born on an army base in Germany, Thomas grew up in South Carolina, relocating with his family to Sarasota at the age of 10. His upbringing was turbulent, with an alcoholic grandmother and mother leaving him troubled and forced to grow up quickly. At 17, fed up with the drama at home, he left for a life of drugs, couch-surfing, stealing cars, getting arrested, and later starting a band in Orlando called Tabitha’s Secret. “We were the big local band, and we thought we were the shit,” he said in a 2009 interview with Rolling Stone.

The R.E.M. wannabes toured throughout the Southeast and developed a strong fan base. They later changed lineups and became Matchbox Twenty, landing a record deal with Atlantic Records. Their debut album, Yourself or Someone Like You, with its hits “3 AM” and “Push,” went platinum ten times.

Three successful albums and one smash crossover Billboard hit later, in 2005, Thomas jumped into a solo career to mixed reactions. The lead single, “Lonely No More,” of his debut album, Something to Be, was funky and almost urban in its sound — but still conveyed that rock edge that lives beneath his vocals. Sonically, it was confusing, yet still very Thomas. The track was carried by his trademark angsty lyrics, this time revolving around jealousy and romantic disillusionment. Sporting a shaved head, tight leather pants, and sunglasses, it was his Justin Timberlake moment. The album was also filled with ballads and looser, groovier tunes, while cheesy as ever. Of course, it was a hit.

Now at his fourth album, Thomas' solo work continues to revert to the hit-making formula of his highest-charting tunes. And as rock sees a slow and painful death, his sound has adapted, getting poppier by the second.

Giving back to his loyal audience of former Matchbox Twenty fans and “Smooth” enthusiasts, his newest move on Chip Tooth Smile is embracing nostalgia and reclaiming his place as the king of adult contemporary music.

His lyrics nudge his older audience, with the chorus of one of his latest singles going: “I’m not afraid of getting older/I’m one less day from dying young.” The album also features the song “Timeless,” an ode to '80s pop that name-drops classics like “In the Air Tonight,” “Sister Christian,” and “Roxanne.”

A 2005 Entertainment Weekly review of his debut solo album dubbed Thomas the “Phil Collins of his generation.” The article, titled "Rob Thomas: adept craftsman or musical agent of Satan? Sometimes it's hard to tell," asks: “Who knew he could be so pop, so rhythmic, so tolerable?” It’s frustrating, isn’t it, when something is so shamelessly corny and still enjoyable? It challenges our deeply ingrained cynicism and proves we’re not all as cool as we think we are.

The Thomas-Collins comparison, while potentially offensive to pop purists, aligns with how the now-revered Collins was perceived in the ‘80s. After all, “Sussudio,” while effortlessly catchy, is rather silly and saccharine. “Many people may think of Phil Collins as a balding ballady doyen of pop slush, but he's one of pop's key pioneers,” said The Guardian in 2013, looking back on his genius.

Collins was treated as a joke and a sellout, much like Paul McCartney was at the height of his solo career in the ’70s. His music was called everything from “flaccid” to “sentimental drivel.” Yet, like McCartney, Collins has earned his place as a pop legend and been redeemed.

So does this mean Thomas is next? He’s got the skills, the hits, and the endless criticism all in the bag. Now all audiences and pop fans can do is wait for the Thomas legacy to get its due.

Rob Thomas. 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 2, at Mizner Park Amphitheater, 590 Plaza Real, Boca Raton; 561-393-7890; Tickets cost $31 to $131 via
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Patricia Cárdenas is a Colombian-American arts and music journalist. She loves '80s pop, bike rides, and thrifting.