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Michael's Number Ones: "Unwell" by Matchbox Twenty



DATE

WEEKS

July 5, 2003

1

Anyone who struggles with their mental health knows that the distinction between crazy and unwell can be razor-thin. I know how fucking weird I can be sometimes, but most days I'm able to pass as being "normal", whatever that word may mean. When you're unwell, it just means that the weirdness is bubbling up to the surface, but not necessarily overtaking your personality. Once someone thinks you're crazy, all bets are off.


I think that most of my favorite musicians are weird in some form or another. I don't know how an artist can be good at their craft without being a little weird. I didn't appreciate this as much in 2003. How weird can you be if you get played on the adult contemporary station at the dentist's office?


Of course, this elides the fact that most of us are, in our own ways, a little unwell. When Rob Thomas wrote about feeling a little unwell, it connected with me in such a way that Matchbox Twenty, one of the biggest bands of the turn of the 21st century, scored their only number one hit on my top 40.



Rob Thomas was born in Germany in 1972; his father was a Sergeant in the United States Army and stationed in Landstuhl with his wife when he was born. The family moved back to Sarasota, Florida, afterward and his parents divorced when he was two. Thomas lived with his mother and sister after the divorce in what could fairly be described as an unstable home life. His mom beat him as a child, but after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, he cared for her until she entered remission.


Thomas dropped out of high school before graduating, and spent two months in jail for stealing a car. After his time in jail, he joined a few cover bands in the Orlando area, and started writing songs. He formed the band Tabitha's Secret in 1993 with future Matchbox Twenty members Brian Yale and Paul Doucette. They recruited Adam Gaynor and Kyle Cook to round out the group.


Tabitha's Secret soon became Matchbox 20, the number in numeral form. I think it's kind of silly they eventually decided to change it to "Twenty", but not enough that I need to get worked up over it. Matchbox 20 signed with Atlantic Records, and released their debut album Yourself or Someone Like You in October 1996. The first single, "Long Day" got some decent airplay on mainstream rock stations, but it was the second single, "Push" that catapulted the band to success.



There's nuance behind the lyrics to "Push"; Thomas claims it was written from the point of view of a man in an abusive relationship with a woman. Abuse in this case doesn't have to be physical. But in 1997, the song was interpreted as a man literally pushing around his girlfriend. It feels stupid to think that the song was viewed as controversial at the time.


Nevertheless, it didn't stop the song from topping Billboard's Modern Rock chart, and going to #5 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart. (Since none of the singles from the album were released physically for sale, they were ineligible to chart on the Hot 100 until Billboard changed the rules in December 1998.) The third single, "3 AM" did even better, climbing to #3 on the Hot 100 Airplay chart. Personally, I was always partial to "Real World", where Thomas's narrator dreams about having power beyond what the real world has to offer. That was still another hit for the band, reaching #9 on Hot 100 Airplay.


There was no denying how successful Matchbox 20 was at that point, and how Thomas was the force behind that success. They had perfected a lighter alternative rock sound that other bands like Third Eye Blind and Sugar Ray were trading in as well around this time. In my very first Number Ones column, I affectionately labeled this sound as "minivan rock". In truth, I loved every one of these bands. Maybe they were the gateway for harder, less pop-friendly sounds my mind was open to as the years passed.


When Carlos Santana recorded what became his stunningly huge comeback album Supernatural, it was Thomas's song "Smooth" that was pegged as the first single. I don't think anyone involved with the song could've anticipated it topping the Hot 100 for 12 consecutive weeks, and becoming one of the biggest songs of all time on the Hot 100. The song was inescapable at the end of 1999. For me, the song feels like the heat rising off the sidewalk in New York at the peak of summer. I love that feeling, although probably less so as I've gotten older.



Matchbox 20 rebranded themselves as Matchbox Twenty for their second album Mad Season. Given the massive success of their first album and "Smooth", it was probably no surprise that lead single "Bent" would top the Hot 100 in the summer of 2000, becoming the band's only #1 hit on that chart. I love the guitar hook that starts the song; it's crunchy and grimy and creates a tension that runs throughout the song. If I ranked my favorite songs of 2000, the year before my top 40 chart began in earnest, "Bent" probably would've been my number one song for the year.


The second single from Mad Season, "If You're Gone", would be an adult contemporary staple for years to come. But the band had more than enough juice at the time for me to like the song, and it peaked at #4 on my top 40 at the beginning of 2001.



For their third album, More Than You Think You Are, the band led off the album cycle with "Disease", a glammy, somewhat out-of-character song for the band that was co-written by Mick Jagger. Thomas actually wrote the song for Jagger, but he gave it back to Thomas, feeling like it was a Matchbox Twenty song. It still was quite a left turn for the band. I was receptive to it enough that it got to #8 on my top 40, but radio audiences were less so, and the song topped out at #29 on the Hot 100.


On the surface, "Unwell" feels like a more back-to-basics Matchbox Twenty song. At the same time, there's a pervasive unease to the lyrics. Thomas's narrator knows that something isn't right. He's making friends with shadows and hearing voices in his head. He thinks people on the train are talking about him.


He's trying to convince us that everything's alright: "I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell/I know right now you can't tell/but stay a while and maybe then you'll see/a different side of me." But I wonder upon listening to the lyrics again if he not trying to convince the audience as much as himself. He's aware that if it keeps up, people will think he's crazy, and he'll be locked away.


Maybe someone who goes through all the behaviors Thomas mentions in the song would be considered crazy. After all, if you see someone ranting to no one in particular on a subway car, your instinct will most likely be to get as far away from them as possible. But it's the invisible behaviors that are probably more troubling to someone going through them. It just fucks up your baseline for how you think you're supposed to be in the world.


By 2003, I was starting to come out of the phase in my life where I had retreated into my own world, not caring much about school or a social life. But I still related deeply to this song. It feels disorienting, like you're on a plane experiencing turbulence. Deep down, you know you're gonna get through the flight, but the moment-to-moment bumps are still unsettling.


The video for "Unwell" is one wild fever dream. Directed by Meiert Avis, Thomas appears in a room whose dimensions keep changing, then drives a car with his dog in shotgun. Other band members appear with their appearances altered. I love when a video can enhance the feeling the song gives to the world. And because Matchbox Twenty could still do big business, the video got a ton of airplay on VH1 and Fuse.


The song became the band's last top 10 hit on the Hot 100, peaking at #5. They followed it up with "Bright Lights", a much more tepid song compared to "Unwell". It peaked at #13 on my top 40, but I definitely remember thinking the band's reputation was carrying most of the water for the song. Nationally, it fared OK, getting to #23 on the Hot 100.



The band took a hiatus after More Than You Think You Are, and Thomas released his first solo album, ...Something to Be, in 2005. The album went to #1 on the album chart and the big hit from the record was "Lonely No More", which got up to #6 on the Hot 100. That song did absolutely nothing for me, however. The follow-ups did better on my top 40: "This Is How a Heart Breaks" got to #23, and the tender ballad "Ever the Same" reached #20. Thomas's biggest solo hit on my chart came off his 2009 album cradlesong; "Her Diamonds" peaked at #11 that summer.


As for Matchbox Twenty, they never again approached the heights of their first three albums. Their 2007 greatest hits album Exile on Mainstream did spin off one more top 10 hit on my chart with the song "How Far We've Come". But it wasn't until 2012 that the band released a proper full length album, North. That record's lead single, "She's So Mean" did reach #19 on my top 40, but it felt a lot like the band was coasting on nostalgia than trying to claim any newfound relevance.


It would be another 11 years before a new Matchbox Twenty album was released. Where the Light Goes came out last May, and you would be forgiven if this is the first time you're hearing about it. We most likely won't be seeing Matchbox Twenty in this column again. Still, Rob Thomas can lay claim to having an imperial era as a great pop songwriter. He may be a little unwell, but if that was enough to get him the success he earned, that should be inspiration to the rest of us who feel a little unwell.


EXTRAS

I'm rarely partial to country music, but this cover of "Unwell" from 2019 by country artist Jimmie Allen is pretty cool. Here it is:




In 2021, Steve Aoki sampled "Unwell" on the song "Used to Be", featuring vocals from Kiiara and Wiz Khalifa. Here's the video:



(Steve Aoki's only top 40 appearance came in 2013 on a collaboration with former and future Number Ones artist Linkin Park on the song "A Light That Never Comes", which got to #18. Kiiara's only top 40 hit on my chart, 2016's "Gold", peaked at #27.)


And even though this is a different Matchbox Twenty song, I'd be remiss if I didn't include Ryan Gosling's cover of "Push" from the amazing 2023 film Barbie:



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