Before “Unwell” became Lite FM fodder and Rob Thomas hit the top of the charts on Santana’s “Smooth”, Matchbox Twenty (formerly stylized as Matchbox 20) debuted with their multi-platinum album Yourself or Someone Like You in 1996. The ‘90s music scene was in a period of transition; the post-grunge era was riddled with alternative rock bands that drew more comparisons to traditional rock music than that of grunge. Yourself or Someone Like You was no exception; the album relies heavily on lead and rhythm guitars. Lyrically, the album is riddled with references to anger, emotional abuse, and loneliness, making this one of the best albums to turn to when you’re stuck with a wicked case of ennui.
“Real World,” the fourth single, kicks off the album on a high note, despite the fact that it’s about dissatisfaction with life in general. With quick-moving guitar riffs and an unexpected feeling of hope, Thomas sings about his unhappiness with life, playing “what if” to determine how he could make it better–or make it worse, depending on the situation. Their hit “3 A.M.” explores what life was like for Thomas while he was living with his mother as she fought cancer when he was twelve. The song is on the higher end tempo-wise for them, exploring what is not the best situation without falling to the maudlin, macabre side. However, this topic becomes even more serious on the lesser-known track “Kody,” where the song’s narrator finds himself spiraling into a deep depression after a friend’s suicide.
Another common thread running through most of Yourself or Someone Like You is how many different ways something can be wrong in a relationship, especially where the singles are concerned. Multiple tracks explore this disquiet at varying tempos and tones, running from the emotional abuse of their iconic track “Push” to the casual disinterest of “Back 2 Good.” The theme continues past their singles, where “Damn” calmly explains being bummed out about ending a defunct relationship. Switching gears, they angrily establish a purely physical relationship in “Busted.” Here their lyrics seem a bit more Third Eye Blind here than Matchbox 20, though “Busted” pre-dates “Semi-Charmed Life”: “I don’t need you crowding up my space/I just want to get inside you, inside.” Less than subtle, certainly dickish, but the bald honesty is rather refreshing and telling of how many different directions they go in on this album.
One of the biggest reasons for the album’s success is also its most controversial. “Push,” the second and arguably most successful single from the album, attracted the ire of feminist groups who believed the song was about abusing women. With lyrics like “I want to push you around/Where I will, where I will/I want to push you down/Where I will, where I will/I want to take you for granted,” the misconception is understandable. Thomas has clarified that the song is actually about a guy who is being emotionally abused. A similar theme is discussed in “Girl Like That,” an upbeat track about a toxic relationship where the good times are enough for him to disregard when his significant tears him down.
He’s not completely off the hook though; first single “Long Day” introduced Thomas filled with self loathing, a person who couldn’t help but take their frustration out on their significant other. “I’m sorry bout the attitude I need to give when I’m with you/But no one else will take this shit from me/And I’m so terrified of no one else but me/I’m here all the time/I won’t go away,” he sings. “Long Day” didn’t see the success that the other singles from this album did, but that might have been due to a lack of notoriety at the time.
Ranging through a variety of emotions, Yourself or Someone Like You is a great example of the shift from the louder discontent of grunge to the mellower dissatisfaction of ‘90s alternative rock bands. Despite the many, many unfortunate things that occur throughout this batch of songs, Matchbox 20 maintains an oddly positive tone throughout; “Real World,” “3A.M.,” and “Argue” keep a more elevated tone. The differences in tone and tempo help to keep the album’s momentum going–and to make sure you’re not too down by the end of it, of course.