Hair-tussled and all comfy in faded jeans and a loose-fitting gray waffle shirt, Rob Thomas sits with his dog Sammy perched on his lap and intently bobs his head as a playback of the first single off his upcoming album, Chip Tooth Smile, “One Less Day (Dying Young)” fills his downstairs home studio. The vocal, a recognizable baritone accented in his always reliable surge of emotion, comes at you crisp, clear, relentless: “I’m not afraid of getting older/I’m one less day from dying young.” When the pulsing momentum of the track resolves in a heavy Celtic-styled accent, the 46-year-old singer-songwriter sits for a moment and exhales, “You know, they say you only live once… well, you die once, but you live every day.” Then, without hesitation, he concludes, “I wanted to write something that expressed that I like being older, which means I get another day.”
On the eve of the twentieth anniversary of his first amazingly successful solo project—working with Carlos Santana to write and perform what Billboard magazine recently calculated is the second-highest charting song ever, “Smooth”—and twenty-three years removed from the smash hit debut of Matchbox Twenty’s Yourself or Someone Like You, “One Less Day (Dying Young)” frames a life in and out of the spotlight. He sings with a measure of enviable unrepentance, “All my life I have been wandering/Burning up my candle like my time just won’t end/And I’ll keep burning ‘til there’s nothing left.”
Looking off in the distance, he smiles for a moment and then looks my way. He honestly wants to know what I think.
Thomas had contacted me in early November of 2018 to invite me up to his Bedford, New York home and down into his musical lair, complete with old stage guitars perched on stands or hanging majestically beside inspiring paintings, photographs of his favorite authors, and military-era ones of his dad, so he could play me these tracks. Back then he was deep into working out the songs and very excited about the prospect of the record. I had spent some time with him on tour with Matchbox Twenty two summers before when he was conjuring up the ideas for new music, and I felt when he called this was his way of completing the journey. In a way, I would be his finish line. It wasn’t until a few months of back-and-forth between us and more recording and mixing that I met him at his doorstep in early February, immediately noticing a bounce to his gate and a broad grin creasing his face. He knew what he had was good and he could not wait to share it.
As much as Chip Tooth Smile is Thomas coming to grips with his present and what he’s accomplished—a meteoric rise to fame during an incredibly creative past quarter-century; composing and performing four #1 singles with Matchbox Twenty and one as a solo artist—much of the record unerringly reveals from where the man who has sold 80 million records and played for millions more across the world has come. More pointedly, the album is a self-portrait and a celebration, if not a deep introspection of a journey to discovery. In the funky blues croon of “I Love It,” he defiantly sings for all he’s worth; “Won’t be getting played out/Never gonna fade out/I’ll just keep on nailing you with fire ‘til you flame out.” In other words, for Thomas, a voracious reader and adoring disciple of literature, it is very much a “rage against the dying of the light” statement while simultaneously coming to grips with its glare. And it is a glare he has known long before he became one of the most recognizable voices in rock history.
“When I was young, maybe fifteen or so, I thought. ‘I’m going to do this forever and I’m going to be really big’,” Thomas says, recalling his origins. “In my first bands, playing covers and shitty originals over tons of gigs that we traveled to in vans and trailers, I had enough suspension of disbelief to the actual possibility of this—I could visualize where I would go, and what I would be.”
Reflective of all this is the album’s title, which refers to a busted front tooth his wife of nearly twenty years, Marisol Maldonado, refused to let him fix for years because, for her, it was indicative of his personality. The dead-end kid with holes in his pockets and stars in his eyes. And it is that very personality—the core of the man and the artist—where Chip Tooth Smile is realized. It is in songs like “We Were Beautiful,” the seventh track on the album and the titular first song on the second side (for all you vinyl freaks, of which Thomas counts himself). It is a simple but chilling underscore to the memories of youth crystalized in a photo, produced by hit-maven, Benny Blanco. Before he plays it, Thomas explains, “We were so beautiful when we were young, and not just aesthetically… we had all this promise.”
Chip Tooth Smile is Thomas’s fourth solo effort, and perhaps it is his most, well, solo. Using only his exceptional alacrity for musical structure, melody, and innate pop sensibilities, with adroit assistance from musical co-conspirator, Butch Walker, the album is at the very least his most singular testimonial, both musically and lyrically. “I had full demos—drums, bass, and guitar—for some of these songs, but Butch didn’t want that to get in the way of how he sees a song,” explains Thomas. “I sent him just me with the guitar playing, then Butch would arrange and play everything, except for a few drum tracks. I was thinking of using the talented people from my earlier solo records like Mike Campbell, Wendy Melvoin, and Abe Laboriel Jr., but it came down to Butch and me deciding, ‘Okay, here’s the song. Where do you want to go?’”
The moment the music begins to pour from the speakers above a computer nestled behind a recording console, I’m led to where the duo would venture and end up; back to the decade of the songwriter’s youth—its sounds, its effects, its instruments, its aura. “An eighties theme runs throughout this record,” Thomas chuckles, knowingly. “It’s in the DNA of the recording.”
Listening to the unabashed tribute to his heroes, from R.E.M. to INXS to George Michael, and echoing the MTV-infused modernity of Human League and the Eurythmics, Thomas and Walker create a time-warp soundscape on the expertly realized “I Love It,” which more than harkens to mid-eighties Robert Palmer or the vocal and drum effects culled from Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight.” One could say it shamelessly slathers it on, but with an impish nod and a wink. Both men made concerted efforts to use authentic and, in many ways, completely antiquated instruments and sounds. On the achingly honest portrayal of coming to grips with racism, “Early in the Morning,” and the Tom Petty colored “Tomorrow Will Only Break Your Heart,” there is no question there is a thematic aural thread here.
Yet none of it devolves into mere homage. Thomas utilizes these muses as subtext to deeper themes. Although the veil is completely lifted on the engagingly fun “Timeless” which Thomas says is “a song about eighties songs, about listening to eighties music, sounding like an eighties song, but also made up entirely of eighties songs titles.” It is the meta equivalent of Ouroboros (the snake that eats itself) and as much fun for the listener to pick out each song reference as it apparently was for the composer and his bride. “I sat down here in the studio and my wife was texting me and feeding me our favorite eighties albums and songs,” he says, excitedly. “I had a list of like forty or fifty of them and I was just picking out the lines and titles that worked.”
The dozen tracks Thomas chose for the release from the nearly-thirty considered (he showed me his secret file called “The Stockyard” where the fallen tunes would remain) were whittled down from a mind-bending sixty. Most of them were composed over the past three years while he was touring solo and with Matchbox Twenty—locations as vast as hotel rooms, backstage corners, and somewhere on a bus rolling across America. All the while, Thomas, who’s prolific musical output has captured Songwriter of the Year awards from both Billboard magazine and BMI, was exploring a time long before he was writing songs with Willie Nelson and Mick Jagger, performing for sold-out arenas, singing at the White House, appearing on magazine covers, and collecting Grammys. These are rummaged snapshots from the energy, promise, and insecurities of his youth.
“We were a radio family,” Thomas remembers. “The radio was always on, so eighties and late seventies radio that my mom and I listened to would become my foundation.” I casually cite his acute sense of the pop idiom for his most celebrated work and he doesn’t hesitate to let me know that it is very much a combination of natural evolution mixed with calculation. “I see myself as a radio kid who has always written radio music. I used to get busted on for that, but what I write is just music for the masses, because—come on, man—I am the masses.”
For those who have followed his career, Chip Tooth Smile is very much awash in Rob Thomas leitmotifs; songs of becoming a father (“Man to Hold the Water”), painful breakups (“It’s Only Love”), and a uniquely charming number entitled “Funny” that takes a steely look inside his deep and lasting love for Marisol in which he describes within as “Every trip and stumble and fall that has gotten me to this point/Making me stronger for the moment we’re experiencing right now… and life is funny that way.” Thomas strips bare how the past few years of Marisol’s very public health issues has affected him in the heart wrenching “Can’t Help Me Now,” something he’s shared from her perspective in previous songs but never from his own. “She’s the one I would turn to when things got tough,” he tells me in a quiet moment after its last note fades. “But when I’m the one caring for her during her difficult health issues, whom can I turn to then?” One can envision the Songwriting Hall of Fame honoree contemplating the weight of this soulful rendering as he was hunched over the piano, leaning in to read the lyrics of the chorus in which he sings, “You’re the one that talks me down/Even you can’t help me now.”
But she did indeed help put a ribbon on Chip Tooth Smile. The album’s final salvo, “Breathe Out” almost didn’t make the record until Marisol intervened. Thomas was not sure the song fit with the whole “middle-aged artist rediscovers his past in sound and fury.” But it sure does. The final stanza, a mantra for Thomas’s journey as a young man, coping with his mother’s cancer and alcoholism, his sleeping in cars, and fighting to keep his dreams and music alive underscores the entire project as catharsis; “When the world is making promises that it can’t keep/You alone your only friend/Breathe out/Breathe in/Breathe out again”—the principal aspect of breathing out first, thus sighing, letting the burdens of the inner-conflict escape before finally breathing in again to allow life to renew hope is starkly brilliant, if not a subconscious piece of advice to take on each and every day. But mostly, it is a damn fine song and would be missed if it remained in The Stockyard.
“I don’t want to die with my best songs in my pocket,” Thomas tells me, agreeing that this gem making the cut was the right call (nice job, Marisol). “If I get a chance to put songs out there for people to hear them, then I’ll take it.”
Later at dinner, still waiting for my thoughts on the record, a man about to dive headlong into months of promotion, TV appearances, and a summer tour casually sips wine, unwinding before the deluge. Part of the day was spent discussing the edits to a video for “One Less Day (Dying Young)” in which he was directly involved. We bat around much of what I’ve written above, and I was quite frankly pleased to tell him I think Chip Tooth Smile is an ambitious triumph in sonic tribalism and personal confession; what all good solo albums from solid songwriters should be. But what I mostly take away from the music is how much it means to Rob Thomas, for whom persona and fame sometimes precedes it. It was back in the nineteen-eighties when a kid with big dreams believed only in the music and hoped for all the rest. And it is the music, it appears from this project, that endures. “I hear songs that haven’t been written yet,” he tells me before we part. “So much of my writing has always been just sitting down or driving down the road and humming a melody to myself and then trying to figure out what it is, and realizing it’s nothing, so it must be me!”
And so, Rob Thomas, on the eve of his fourth solo album, filled with stories and grooves aplenty, proving his youthful musical muse is still very much inside him, has made his case. He only had to wait for everyone else to hear it. These infectious and insightful songs are now finally out of his pocket.
Be sure to catch Rob Thomas at the Count Basie Center for the Arts in Red Bank, NJ on May 28!