None of these accomplishments have ever earned Thomas’ music any type of critical acclaim, or even proper critical evaluation. He’s been a commercial giant and radio mainstay, but none of his albums, either on his own or with Matchbox Twenty, are considered particularly influential, outside of the PG-rated rock groups -- OneRepublic, Train, The Fray -- that followed in his adult-contemporary footsteps. He’s won three Grammys, all for “Smooth” in 2000, but that song became so ubiquitous during its 12-week run atop the Hot 100 that even Thomas understands why people got sick of it. “When it came out, it was a kind of fun summer jam,” he says. “And then there was a period where everyone was like, ‘I never want to hear this fucking song ever again!’”
Thomas grew up listening to Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel and Elton John on FM radio in the late 70s and early 80s; his favorite artists weren’t considered cool in their own time, but they were reliable hitmakers -- which is what Thomas admired, and ultimately what he discovered he could become with Matchbox Twenty.
“I think we’re a fucking great band, and I think I’m a really good songwriter,” he says. “I think there are certain other people out there whose job is to move the needle in a certain way. And that was never our designation.”
Thomas admits that his last solo album, 2015’s The Great Unknown, was the first time that he felt like he was bending his songwriting formula to modern trends. Studio whizzes like Ryan Tedder and Ricky Reed contributed to the production, along with longtime collaborator Matt Serletic, but the party-pop of lead single “Trust You” and anthemic stomping of “One Shot” sounded too cloying to cross over, and the album became the first in Thomas’ career not to register a song on the Hot 100. “I wasn’t happy with it,” he says, “and it didn’t quite land in the way that I’m used to.”
For its follow-up, Thomas made a few choices that put him back in his comfort zone, starting with calling longtime friend Butch Walker to produce the entire project. Walker, a veteran singer-songwriter who recently contributed to full-lengths by Weezer and Fall Out Boy, worked on the album from his Santa Monica studio, with Thomas FaceTiming him from his basement studio in New York and sending him demos over GarageBand, in between the occasional in-person session on either coast.
“I didn’t want this to be a midlife crisis record for him or anything,” says the 49-year-old Walker. He knows that, for an aging radio fixture like Thomas, unspoken pressure -- from a label, or management, or the industry at large -- can result in overreaching in an effort to mine new hits. “They want you to keep delivering pop singles, hit after hit after hit,” he says. “And I don’t think that a lot of stuff that’s on pop radio really sits where Rob came from and what he is.”
Walker is right: Top 40 radio, increasingly dominated by hip-hop and rhythmic pop, no longer makes room for the alternative rock that Thomas rode to fame in the 90s. It’s a reality that Thomas has faced before -- “When Matchbox Twenty had [2003 hit] ‘Unwell,’ everything else on the charts was like, Nelly and Ludacris,” he says with a laugh -- and accepts today. To that end, Thomas led Chip Tooth Smile with “One Less Day (Dying Young),” a single about the least youth-friendly subject imaginable: appreciating life as you gracefully age.