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Matchbox Twenty returns after long absence to offer an album of exuberance, 'Where the Light Goes'

NEW YORK (AP) — More than a decade has passed since the last Matchbox Twenty album, so, fans can be forgiven for thinking it was the end of the line. That's what Matchbox Twenty was thinking, too.

“We had pretty much come to terms that we didn’t think we’re ever going to make another record. We thought ‘North’ was the last record. Maybe we’d tour every few years, put out a song or two and kind of that’ll just be it,” says singer-songwriter Rob Thomas.

So fans can thank guitarist-keyboardist Kyle Cook for “Where the Light Goes,” the band's 12-track album of new music — the first since 2012 — out this Friday. Cook floated the idea of giving fans who had waited through the pandemic a full album of fresh tunes.

As the album's songs started coalescing, Thomas realized that they were on the sunny side, with nods to the '80s throughout, like Peter Gabriel, T’Pau, Go West and Level 42. It was turning out to be a post-pandemic record, one of exuberance.

“We weren’t making a downer record. We weren’t making a pandemic record, and we weren’t making a cynical record,” he says. “This was a record about joy and optimism.”

From the opening song “Friends” — a bubbly, sing-along celebration — to the soaring, romantic “One Hit Love,” “Where the Light Goes” is a sunny collection from a band Thomas jokes “almost invented '90s manufactured angst.”

The album's second song, “Rebels,” nods to that change, with Thomas looking back at a younger man's fire. “When you get angry with yourself/You blame the rebel that you sold out/Let go and be yourself right now."

Thomas, whose signature growl fueled such hits as “Push” and “3AM,” explains that he's gotten to the point in his life when it's OK to pass the torch, that he doesn't always need to be raging or worried that he sold out.

“I posit that that rebel inside of you is tired,” he says, laughing. “He’s raged on against the dying of the light, and now he would just maybe blog about it. Dude, you’ll be fine.”

The reunited Matchbox Twenty has also lost some of the internal spikiness of the past, adding a more collaborative feel. “Nobody’s precious anymore and nobody is quick to anger anymore,” Thomas says.

“When you’re in your 20s, everything feels like a slight. You want real estate on that record and you want your ideas heard and you want people to hear your point of view.” Now, he says: “I don’t think anybody should die with their best songs in their pocket. So if you’ve got it, you should show it.”

One of the first songs they worked on was the title tune by Thomas, something he'd been thinking about for a solo album. He sent a version to multi-instrumentalist Paul Doucette, who added his parts and then sent it to Cook.

“When it got back to me, my first thought was, ‘Man, this sounds like Matchbox Twenty,’” Thomas says. "I know what I sound like. But once their DNA gets into this song, it sounds like Matchbox Twenty. I was just like, ‘I get it now. Like, I understand.’ No matter what I do, if I want a Matchbox Twenty sound, I have to do it with Matchbox Twenty.”

During their time away from the band, Thomas released five solo albums, winning three Grammy Awards, and Doucette scored and contributed original music to film and television series like “Utopia” and “For All Mankind.”

They leaned on technology as they started working together again since Thomas was in upstate New York, bassist Brian Yale was in Miami, Doucette was in Los Angeles and Cook was in Nashville. They'd work at their various home on songs and then meet to record once they had enough.

Pete Ganbarg, president of A&R for Atlantic Records, who has been working with Thomas since he teamed up with Santana on the massive hit “Smooth,” says the band members feel comfortable in their own skin.

“It’s a lot of fun to watch them in the studio now, a couple of decades later, because they all understand who they are and they work with that very naturally,” he says. “This is a band that’s been around since 1995. How many bands like that are still making records close to 30 years later?”

One thing that hasn't changed is that the band remains cheeky when it comes to album covers. Members of Matchbox Twenty have a tendency of not being fully shown — either they're covering their faces, languishing in the distance or not there at all. “Where the Light Goes” continues the tradition, with the quartet's likeness distorted beyond recognition.

“Nobody wants to see four 50-year-old guys,” says Thomas. “There’s no packaging in the world that's like ‘You know what’s going to make this sell better? Four 50-year-old guys standing in front of a camera.'”

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits