Rob Thomas is a musician who has been around the block a few times. As the lead singer and co-founder of the alt-rock group Matchbox Twenty, a three-time Grammy Award–winner, a solo artist, and a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, his talent and experience spans multiple facets of the music industry. To call him successful is an understatement. Having been in the industry for well over twenty years, and having had massive success from a young age, he’s the sort of musician who inspires scrutiny—not only to determine how he succeeded, but also to see whether or not he has succeeded well.The song is a simple, but thoughtful rebuke against the fear of old age and the desire to cling to youth.
Thomas figured out early in his career that the best songs he writes are the most emotionally honest ones, and his latest single, “One Less Day (Dying Young),” is no exception. In it, he takes an introspective look back at his life. Like many young musicians, Thomas’s early years of success were marked by hedonism. Drugs, sex, and rock and roll—and lots of it. By all accounts, Thomas is the sort of person who very likely could have burned bright and died young, a victim of his own reckless lifestyle. But at the height of his fame, he and his bandmates cleaned up their acts, and against the odds, they are still around making music today. Rob Thomas hasn’t only had a successful career with Matchbox Twenty, however; he’s also released three solo albums prior to Chip Tooth Smile, his fourth solo album, which comes out April 26 of this year (2019). “One Less Day (Dying Young)” is the single that kicks off Chip Tooth Smile and, as Thomas says, “sets the tone” for the album.
It’s a tone that encapsulates Thomas’s mindset as he thinks about where he is in his life, in his relationships, and in his career. Many musicians in Thomas’s acquaintance have not been as fortunate as him; he has watched peers fall out of the limelight over time, and many of his friends have actually died along the way—some of them in recent years. Thomas has been transparent about the impact these deaths have had on him, and in interviews about “One Less Day (Dying Young),” he has said the genesis of the song came from watching a lot of his friends die young. Getting older is “a privilege that’s not afforded to everyone.”
Despite the grim subject matter, the song is surprisingly upbeat. Aided by a tune so catchy you almost can’t help but have it memorized after one listening, Thomas’s first single off Chip Tooth Smile is a reminder of the joy of life itself. Through the repeating refrain of, “I’m not afraid of getting older… I’m one less day from dying young,” he explores the truism that we’re not promised even a single day on this earth, and we should draw each breath as a celebration. The song is a simple, but thoughtful, rebuke against the fear of old age and the desire to cling to youth. More than that, it fosters gratitude for the days we spend on this earth—it encourages us to look forward to the end without fear.
And the song is not even about getting old, per se. Thomas believes it can be a good reminder for young people, too, about the simple value of cherishing life. “Every day that you get is really more special than you may realize,” he says, speaking of how youth often don’t think in the long-term. As such, the song reminds me of two old artistic practices called memento mori and vanitas. Memento mori is a Latin expression meaning, “Remember you must die,” and in painting, a memento mori still life would contain images of mortality—almost always a skull, but also such things as candles going out, hour glasses, and flowers. Anything to remind the viewer that life is short and fragile. Vanitas are also still lifes, but in addition to symbols of mortality, they might include symbols of vanity, such as musical instruments or books or wine. The point of vanitas was to show the viewer how fleeting life’s pleasures are (as taken from Ecclesiastes 1:2, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”)
The music video for “One Last Day (Dying Young)” utilizes the imagery of the guttering candles as Thomas sings to the camera about friends that he’s lost too young and how he’s not afraid of reflecting on his own mortality. It’s at once a celebration of life, but simultaneously a reminder that we all will die. Like a memento mori, Thomas tells us to keep our death before our eyes, not as something to fear, but as a reminder to live and to live well. We don’t get to redo our days on this earth. Like a vanitas, it’s a rejection of hedonism—Solomonic in meaning. Because we must die, we must live for more than fleeting pleasures.
When I first heard the single on the radio, I was struck by the optimism of the tune, especially considering it is a song about death. Personally, I am often afraid of getting older, as I think about all the things I still want to achieve and haven’t yet. Youth beckons with promise, dreams, and achievement—a golden window that seems to be closing fast. I know I should look forward to old age as the coming years of wisdom, but more often than not, I view them with dread, and yes, fear. I am afraid of getting older—not of age itself, but of leaving things undone, words unspoken, achievements unclaimed. But it is impossible to achieve everything we desire in our short lifespans. As Gandalf once told Frodo in a dark cave in Moria, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Time is fleeting, but that doesn’t mean we need to fear its passage.
Thus the new single by Rob Thomas has a simple message, but carries a profound truth. “One Last Day (Dying Young)” is not a Christian song—there is no mention of the life eternal or of God or any real contemplation of the spiritual self. But when I hear it, I’m reminded to be thankful for every day God gives me on this earth, no matter what those days may hold. Life itself is a gift, every breath a mercy. When we keep our deaths before our eyes as a memento mori, we can embrace the coming of old age without fear. I have found at least a small amount of courage to face tomorrow in this song, and that is cause for celebration.