CCP Ep. #179: The Great Unknown by Rob Thomas

Remember our ancient Matchbox Twenty episode? Well, as you may or may not know, the band’s frontman Rob Thomas has had a solo career for over a decade, and we just thought we’d check in to see what his latest solo excursion, The Great Unknown, is all about. Join us in today’s unsparing analysis, listen to our afterthoughts, and then share yours below! Also, don’t forget to check out our big discussion at 1:43:17 on the trials and tribulations of bonus tracks and exclusive media. Sick of it all yet? Can’t get enough? We want to know!

Next week’s review:
Paper Gods by Duran Duran
Guest: Matt Holtzclaw

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  1. I’m just hearing this for the first time and, while I can’t begin to address the technical and musical elements you discuss, I have to wonder why you seem so unaware of the meaning of a lot of these songs. Or I guess I should say the well-known background that is Rob Thomas’ life, and, hence, the reason for a lot of these songs. His wife’s desperate ongoing illness is premier among them. Even the most casual of fans know a good bit of this, but, if not, Mr. Thomas himself has spoken in detail about the lyrics. I think, had you done any research in this regard, your impressions might have been a little more informed.

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thank you for your feedback! Bit of a long reply here, but unlike simple fact corrections/apologies, your comment happens to touch on the fascinating and contentious issue of ‘relative importance’ in our reviews, which we constantly wrestle with.

      First off, after looking into the points you’ve raised, we absolutely apologize for not having provided the background that certain tracks on this album may have warranted. Although we tried our best to incorporate relevant music research into this episode, our lyrical analysis of certain tracks may have been shallower than usual, neglecting the fundamental subject Rob Thomas was referring to, or at least driving at, as he interchangeably equates a broken heart to the fear of loss. Makes sense; this background certainly would have added more substance to our debate, and might have factored in more heavily towards the end of our analysis and final review. To this I’d say, an easy response would be: we don’t always catch everything. Indeed, our cursory research of this album did not divulge the details of his wife’s illness nor its direct relationship to the music; so no, it was not at our disposal during this review. Mea culpa! (You, our listeners, are our other eyes and ears.)

      But now to the trickier response… Apart from trying to speak to the music from the technical/aesthetic end, one of our goals is to speak to the impression an album might have on a listener on its own, especially on a listener who lacks supplemental background knowledge and interviews — and this goes for, not only as you’ve said, “casual fans”, but also for newcomers & window-shoppers… e.g., in the same way it would be superfluous for me to tell you that a piece of cinema was a masterpiece simply because I was enlightened by some “behind the scenes” footage, albums do not necessarily benefit (nor suffer) from these details either. My argument would be: they appease our curiosity, but not our souI. One example of benefitting from this sort of detachment might be, say, appreciating the music of a ballet independently of the story or choreography should the plot somehow hinder or devalue the qualities of the score — that way, if you’ve only heard the music, consider yourself blissfully ignorant! We also saw this recently in our review of 57th & 9th by Sting and how hyper-specificity and copious levels of research may or may not have aided the work. (Had we reeled it back a bit, we might have steered closer to the music, and perhaps even derived more meaning.)

      That said, I can easily think of examples to support your point. For instance, it would seem awfully vapid to avoid the topic of death on a work like Blackstar by David Bowie or You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen considering their untimely passing and them being all-too-conscious of what they were trying to create. But flipping back again, overt sentiment can also present a moral dilemma… because what if you simply don’t like a composer’s final work? Are we obligated to enjoy art because of how, why, or when it was written? A common take here is that, in these cases, it’s simply in poor taste to comment & critique. (Fair enough—we have fiercely avoided Blackstar for this exact reason.) And yet I also tend to think that admiring a composer’s final work too much, simply because it’s their final work, is equally belittling. Mozart’s Requiem may indeed be beautiful—having extra significance because it was written with Mozart’s dying breaths—but then I would also say, “Sure, but isn’t it beautiful regardless?” [Needless to say, this has been a matter of ongoing debate for us the past few weeks.] In short, our primary goal in this episode was to express what was conveyed to us through the raw material presented—essentially, an exploration of how the album functions in the vacuum of its own experience. This approach is admittedly imperfect and has partially evolved since this episode aired. It may continue to evolve as respectful exchanges like this one continue to shape the future of the show!

      But getting back to your original point on how we missed the meaning of the songs, I would have to respectfully disagree that we completely undersold their goals. We did our best to pick them apart and sum up the lyrical impacts of these tracks, many of which can be taken outside the context of his wife’s illness—and yes, there are interviews that seem to show this was intentional! Rob Thomas has indicated that many of these songs were written to have “universal appeal”; they masquerade as simple themes of comfort, trust, energy, life is short, hardship, interpersonal strife, cherishing the moments, etc., all with catchy hooks and malleable ideas. It was to these themes that we were trying to speak to, namely because the lyrics themselves were general enough that Thomas’s specific inspiration was less relevant to this analysis. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely see how these themes all stack up to his fear of loss vs. his celebration of life, him tapping into his wife’s resilience in spite of whatever happens (“the great unknown”), etc. That said, the above interview also sees Thomas paint “the great unknown” as being just as generalized: your endeavors, life and its many twists and turns — all things we covered at length. Now, had he pointed to his wife’s illness with more of a heavy hand, as other artists have, then we likely would have stumbled upon it more easily and discussed it more readily. [Even now, after knowing all this, a re-read of these lyrics doesn’t illuminate that subject in a particularly self-apparent fashion, and I suspect that Thomas wanted it that way; he’s not known for being fervidly self-serious.]

      As to the album as a whole, we’re always glad to hear another perspective. Rob Thomas is certainly a born pop songwriter, and although we spoke on many positive aspects of the writing in this episode, we were generally a little harsher on this one because of the confinement of that pop style. Balancing the relative importance of song meaning vs. music quality has always been one of our greatest challenges, and we’ve been trying to get better at it as time goes on. It’s especially difficult as, very often, lyrical quality can outshine musical quality (in importance) for one person and the other way around for someone else. In short, we all value different things in music.

      All of this, however, is ZERO defense for the oversight you’ve brought to our attention. It should have at least entered our conversation at some point. And although we can’t say for sure whether those considerations would have resulted in vastly opposing views to what we presented, it is a critical fallacy that this angle was not somewhere on our minds when rating. Rest assured, it will be considered going forward, perhaps even in the next ‘Year in Review’ episode where we revisit old albums. So we have until December 2017 to think about what you’ve said :-).

      • Hi Steve,

        Thanks for your prompt and well-thought out reply. I have to admit, after I posted my comment, I did consider the point you make. I realize listening to a new song “blind”, unaware of any background, is a more common experience and any song should certainly stand on its own, independent of the reason for being written. And I know, as you stated, that he often says that even though a song comes from his personal experience, he does write them so they have meaning to anyone moved by the lyrics for whatever reason. I suppose it’s just that much of his work is so definitely personal it becomes difficult to separate that out and I’m not sure that it should be. So many songs we love are enhanced by the stories behind them, and that knowledge will often make a listener really listen, and perhaps give the record more serious consideration. As your technical reviews emphasize, musical layers are intriguing and important. I guess my point was that lyrical layers are important, too, and I appreciate reviewers who dig deeper and take the time to reveal them to me.

        Best wishes for a new year filled with lots of great music!

        • Thanks for the well-wishes Lisa,

          A perfectly understandable perspective. Lyrical layers are, indeed, as important as the music as we’ve come to address over the years. The degrees to which we delve into one or the other all depend on the work… and, in part, on the natural flow of the discussion. Hopefully you’ll find something else in our catalogue that sparks interest.

          A music-filled year to you too! And stay vocal!

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