Every generation has its Bryan Adams -- a syrupy balladeer cloaked in root-rock affectation. By 1997, the chart-topping Holy Grail that Rob Thomas sought was a gut-wrencher that would sound equally at home on Now, That's What I Call Eddie Vedder, Vol. 8 and the soundtrack of Titanic 2. On the radio, "Push" seemed like standard-issue frat-boy resentment. But "Push" sounds different in the context of an album dedicated to the ruminations of a schlub who's fascinated and repulsed by sexual, psychological, and financial power relations. Not sure if he's "ever been good enough," outclassed by the movers and shakers of the real world, Thomas settles, in bad conscience, for manipulating his girlfriend and sulking at parties.
For round two, however, the author of Santana's biggest single ("Smooth") could no longer play the underdog. Thomas' empathy had swelled with his bank account, and, unfortunately, so did the string section that began to accompany his ballads. "Bent" distills new-metal dysfunction into everyday desperation even as its riffs forge grunge into a platinum alloy suitable for nine-to-five office radio. On "Rest Stop," Rob takes a nap in the passenger seat during a road trip, and when he wakes up, his girl gives him the boot. Her rationale: "I was listening to the radio/And wondering what you're dreaming/When it came to mind that I didn't care." Wow. Rod Stewart is never gonna cover that. (KEITH HARRIS)