The new Rob Thomas album Something to Be is an eclectic mix of dance tunes, soft ballads and the occasional haunting emotion, which proves that Thomas himself is still deciding what to “be” as an artist. Thomas incorporates styles from blues, world and country music into this album, making every track intriguing.
The upbeat song “This is How a Heart Breaks” starts off the album, and its tempo seems inconsistent with its subject. The song seems to make a broken heart into a party, as Thomas sings, “This is it now / everybody get down / this is all I can take / this is how a heart breaks.” “Lonely No More,” the second track and the album’s first single, has a Latin feel that harkens back to “Smooth,” Thomas’s hit collaboration with Carlos Santana. At this point the listener may be ready to write off this album as a clubbing mix — i.e. pure Ricky Martin. Little does this person know, Thomas is about to branch out in 10 different directions.
“I Am an Illusion” starts to mix things up, bringing in unusual sounds; the song begins with gospel-like chanting and is full of distorted instrumentals which make it feel more chaotic and rock-esque than the first two songs. Title track, “Something to Be” also has this rock feel, reminiscent of Thomas’s work with much-beloved band Matchbox 20. Unfortunately, this song’s chorus is accompanied by people chanting “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” taking some depth and power away from Thomas’s identity search.
Many songs start out slowly and mysteriously, so the listener is surprised by where Thomas takes them. “All That I Am” starts with an evocative ringing of bells and incorporates sounds from world music. Later, the verses’ harsh percussion builds up to a pure, triumphant chorus that makes this song feel too resolved and a bit sentimental.
Interspersed between these experimental songs are the slow love songs, “Ever the Same” and “When the Heartache Ends.” In the latter piece, Thomas proves his songwriting prowess (he penned every song on the album, as well as all his previous hits with Matchbox 20 and as a solo artist) with the chorus: “Well it’s all right / why don’t you tell me again / how you’ll still be there when the heartache ends.” This ballad is a simple, feel-good song. As pop music goes, there’s nothing to argue with here.
The songs that Matchbox 20 fans may have problems with are “My My My” and “Streetcorner Symphony,” which err toward easy listening with lyrics full of sentimental clichés. In the upbeat “Streetcorner,” Thomas sings, “Come on over / down to the corner / my sisters and my brothers / of every different color / feel that sunshine / telling you to hold tight / everything will be all right.” This track has potential to become the new theme song for Sesame Street.
On the other hand, the album’s finale, “Now Comes the Night,” is worth every minute of the wait. Thomas’s exquisite voice, with just a bit of an edge, is simply accompanied by piano in this serene ballad that sustains a haunting, melancholy feeling to the very end. Listeners can tell here that Thomas doesn’t need to dress up his instrument with complicated music, though he often does. It might be better if he went acoustic in the future.
This album’s alternation between fun, up-tempo songs and slow, emotional ballads keeps things interesting, even though there are only a few stellar moments. These simple, touching parts show that Thomas has a winning combination: a unique and beautiful voice and the ability to write memorable tunes.
— Liz Logan