10 Years, 100 Songs: #83. “Shouldn’t Be So Complicated…”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 7, 2009
Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.
Two bands that will always be inextricably associated in my mind are Third Eye Blind and Matchbox20. They make for a fair comparison, albeit an extremely superficial one: Both bands emerged on the national spotlight in 1997, as unsure a period for rock as there has been in the post-punk era, and both seemed to signify nothing in particular–blandly personable bands with nice-enough tunes and no apparent scene or movement to represent. Their respective breakout albums–3EB’s self-titled, and M20’s Yourself and Someone Like You–were gargantuan hits, spawning radio singles well into 1998, crossing radio platforms and generally putting smiles on peoples’ faces. It seemed unsustainable, however, that both bands would maintain that level of popularity into the new millennium–one would continue to sell millions and own adult contemporary radio, while the other would become firmly entrenched in Best New Artist malaise.
From their first big singles released in the 21st century, it should have been clear which one was going to be which. Third Eye Blind released “Never Let You Go,” a jaunty, falsetto-laden number with an extremely inappropriate post-apocalyptic-looking video. The song was obscenely catchy–almost dangerously so–but it was a little bit too out-of-the-box for top 40 radio to really embrace. Lead singer Stephan Jenkins’ wrote a song with enigmatic verses, a chorus that didn’t really make sense, bridges that got too far off-track, and a ranting section at the end that came out of nowhere…all the kind of things that actually made it one of the quirkiest, most fun pop singles of the decade, but things which damned it to a #14 peak on the pop charts–not really the kind of showing to keep up momentum, especially when you had three top ten singles last time around. Of course, as weird as NLYG was, it wasn’t half as weird as “Semi-Charmed Life,” the song for which they’ll be remembered, was–but that song had an urgency and excitement to it that the band could never really hope to match again. (Though they came closer than you remember with similarly under-appreciated follow-up “Anything,” as if anyone noticed).
Matchbox20, on the other hand, released “Bent.” Now, say what you will about Rob Thomas, but he really knew what he was doing here. Coming off the heels of an album like YSOSLY, and to a lesser extent, a smash like Santana’s “Smooth,” for which Thomas provided the vocals, there are certain rules one really should adhere to when crafting their first follow-up single. First, it should have a great intro–this is the first the public’s heard from you in a while, so it should be attention-grabbing from the startup. Check–“Bent” is introduced by a strikingly swervy, almost Oasis-esque guitar hook, which delivers the song right into its driving, almost humming beat. Second, it should sound like the result of an increased spending budget–you’re rock stars now, after all, and it should sound like it. Check–“Bent” is immaculately produced in all corners, with a much richer, almost electronic-influenced sound to it. Third, it should have an absolutely dynamite chorus. Check once more–but more on that later.
Matchbox 20, and Thomas especially, hold an interesting place in the rock star canon. By the time they’d stopped spooling off hits from YSOSLY in the late 90s, they’d already lost any sort of underground credibility that they could have ever possibly laid claim to. They were strictly the property of cross-genre radio programming at this point–“Push” was a #1 modern rock hit, but they’d never chart higher than #16 on any rock chart again. Objectively speaking, this was fair enough–M20 were a decidedly vanilla outfit, pushing no buttons or boundaries, and creating songs that, while not exactly dispassionate, went no great distance in any particular direction, lyrically, musically or emotionally. They were fine songs, most of which I know all the words to, but they spoke to no real artistry or ambition. Most bands of this ilk would accept this and go for the gusto, grab the adult contemporary ring and never look back.
But the interesting thing about Rob Thomas is that he still saw himself as something more. He grew up listening to The Cure and industrial music, and as an adult songwriter, he idolized Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Unlike most critically panned rock stars, who gave critics only enough thought to curse them out when they were brought up in interviews, Thomas really seemed to care what they thought about him. And if you listen, this tension is somewhat evident in his music–the sound of a man desperately wanting to be artistic and interesting and most of all, complicated, but really being much more talented at writing songs that were simple and vague enough to appeal narrowly to a broad group of people. Thomas just could never really commit himself enough to any one feeling, any one sound, any one emotion to either draw people into his world or signify something larger than himself–an indecisiveness likely responsible for millions in sales, but one which cost him any chance of ever really ranking among his heroes.
Ironically, it’s that tension and indecisiveness that make “Bent” such a compelling song. It’s all right there in the song’s key question–“Can’t you help me, I’m bent?” What other rock star in history would sing about being bent? Broken, shattered, smashed to smithereens, yeah, that’s all good. But bent? Only Rob Thomas could be so afraid of going the distance that he would sing about the horrors of feeling slightly left of center. Nevertheless, it feels like the most honest moment of his entire career, especially in conjunction with the next line “I’m so scaaaared that I’ll never / get put back together”–speaking to the extreme feeling of artistic paralysis that Thomas must have been feeling at this point in his career, not sure what he’s become, not sure where he was planning on going, and not sure how to get back to where he once was. The video spoke to this ambiguous disconnect as well, with an emotionally jarring but entirely nonsensical plot, which seemed to suggest that Thomas was trying desperately to tell us something about himself and his state of mind, but wasn’t sure exactly what it was.
Of course, it’s unlikely that the public read all that much into this when they sent “Bent” to the top of the charts in the summer of 2000–the thing was a fine pop song by any measure, with a great intro, fantastic production values, and a chorus was catchy and interpretable enough on basic terms for anyone to get into it. And Matchbox 20 would indeed go on to produce a fair number of slightly enjoyable, largely unremarkable MOR hits throughout the decade–“If You’re Gone,” “Disease” and “Unwell” (“Bent” redux, in title and chorus at least) among them, before Thomas embarked on a solo career which produced one shockingly good Timberlakean white-boy hip-swiveler (“Lonely No More”) and a whole lot more of the same. But “Bent” will always be the most interesting of his songs to me, for the paradoxical effect it had of making Rob Thomas, in all his insecure, uncertain, distinctionless non-glory, finally seem–in his own weird way–noteworthy, compelling, and dare I say it, kind of complicated. (And he certainly gets the last laugh over the more nominally talented and interesting Jenkins, who today just seems kinda fat, drugged-out and sad).