Tuesday, May 17, 2016

album review: 'thank you' by meghan trainor

Let's talk briefly about selling out.

Now I know that even by opening up the review like this, I've set myself up for a certain amount of backlash, particularly from people who think that I'm using it as an opportunity to denigrate a shift to pop. The funny thing is that you can 'sell out' while still remaining in the same genre, by compromising artistic principles or a unique sound for something that's more generic but is guaranteed to sell better. And that's not making the implication that selling out is inherently a bad thing either - some acts only discover a pop sensibility when they do so, which can result in them making more melodically satisfying music - but especially for an act starting out, it can be a bad sign for times to come, and it tends to rend fanbases in two.

As such, I've had a certain academic curiosity in watching how people have reacted to Meghan Trainor's lead-up to her sophomore release. With her debut album Title, Meghan Trainor carved out a distinctive niche for herself, even if it did happen to turn my stomach with every subsequent listen, a doo-wop inspired retro-pop sound that was safe, self-satisfied, and overwhelming white and saccharine. It was very much music for a demographic that didn't want to be challenged by their music, which would have been fine if Meghan Trainor's songwriting and delivery didn't demand frequent challenges for a load of unsettling implications and amateurish sloppiness, something which Trainor seemed adamant in ignoring. In other words, there are reasons why she took the top two spots on my Top Ten Worst Hit Songs of 2015, one for her collaboration with Charlie Puth on 'Marvin Gaye' and the top spot all for herself with 'Dear Future Husband'.

And yet even despite the avalanche of requests for me to tear her sophomore album a new one, I was genuinely perplexed about Meghan Trainor's new direction. With a track like 'No', which traded one style of plastic pop for another - 50s for late 90s - I had no idea where Trainor was going to be taking her sound as a whole. Was she succumbing to what acclaimed critic Nathan Rabin has described as the 'hoification process' and augmenting her material with more openly brazen sexuality - which would certainly be amusing to dissect after Title - or was this a half-measure to court mainstream nostalgia baiting with a sophomore release that further muddied her message? And more importantly, would it be listenable? Well, I dove into Thank You to find out - what did we get?

I'm of a few minds on this record. On the one hand, it does not have the openly controversial and outright atrocious tracks that pissed me off so much about Title... but on the same note, it's not like there aren't the same exasperating implications, they're just disguised a little more effectively and not dressed up in retro-pop. And that's the weird thing about this project: Meghan Trainor took the stylistic affectations that made her famous and pitched them out the window for something that relies on the same melodic foundation but feels slightly more contemporary. And really, I'm on the fence whether it led to better music, because Thank You feels like a safer record than Title, hitting shallower lows but also weaker highs.

So let's start with the biggest changes, the instrumentation and production, and what you all have to remember is that while the doo-wop side of Meghan Trainor's production was emphasized the most on Title, her biggest 'strength' actually is on a more fundamental level: simplistic but catchy melodies. Hell, if that album actually had more of a budget to add a little more texture and flavour to the instrumentation, it might not have rubbed me the wrong way - and to her credit, Trainor got the message. Enlisting producer Ricky Reed, who you want to remember for his work with twenty-one pilots and not his material with Fifth Harmony and Jason Derulo, there are tracks that have a little more well-balanced crunch and groove, the best possible example showing up on the collaboration with LunchMoney Lewis 'I Love Me' - seriously. Hell, the choppy acoustic strumming, the deeper bassline, the sharper drumming, there are seeds of a workable sound across the whole record here... and yet Reed has a bad reputation for weird production choices that can be incredibly hit-and-miss - you get the horn sample on 'Talk Dirty' but the recorder on 'Wiggle'. And here... honestly, I'm not all that impressed. The bassline across 'Watch Me Do' and the sharper bounce of the synth are 'I Won't Let You Down' were nice, but contrast that to the whistles and synth line jacked from N'Sync's 'It's Gonna Be Me' on 'No' and the inert pop of 'Me Too' which has a beat that reminds me of a bad Black Eyed Peas progression that completely can't pay off the chorus. And then we get the more openly Caribbean-inspired songs, like the desaturated steel drums and very distant guitar melody of 'Better' or the tropical house vibe of 'Champagne Problems' and while it doesn't always show up on just these songs, I can't be the only one who finds Meghan Trainor's Caribbean-inspired patois all that workable, right? It's awkward and stiff and doesn't remotely flatter her more nasal tones.

Actually, let's talk a little more about Meghan Trainor here, who is proving to be a surprisingly limited performer in terms of vocal range and nuance. Initially I thought the problem was analogous to early Beyonce in that she only felt comfortable singing about how awesome she is, but I wouldn't even argue that's convincing when the sequencing of this record, which alternates between the shallowest of bragging and more sensitive songs where she's yearning for a relationship and a guy who's a hopeless romantic like her. Okay, points for showing more dimension, but it reflects an artist who has shockingly little self-awareness, or at least a refusal to lean into it. For contrast, when LunchMoney Lewis hops on the verse on 'I Love Me' - an anthem to self-love that's kind of ridiculous, he plays it broader and looser, and it comes across far more likeable and confident. Hell, for this sort of plastic pop I almost wish he was here more, but instead we had to get a phoned-in Yo Gotti verse where in his desire to have a deeper connection with Trainor, he says he 'hates friends' - lovely!

Granted, this is where we get to the songwriting itself... and here's the thing: if I remotely bought that Meghan Trainor had more of a sense of humour, I'd be a little more forgiving of songs like 'Champagne Problems', which is basically a far weaker and less funny version of the Weird Al track 'First World Problems' that's better than this entire album. The problem is that there are so many amateurish songwriting mistakes and moments where the songs weren't thought through that I can't give her that pass. Everyone's already laughed at 'Watch Me Do' where she talks about her 'breasteses', but the line that strikes me as worse is 'head spinning round like an exorcist' - not only is the reference wrong, but trying to reinterpret that as a possible positive is a big problem! Or take the 'dance-how-you-like' song 'Dance Like Yo Daddy', which might have some catchy production with the whipcrack and horns, but 'do the old man overbite', are you kidding? Or take 'No' - if you're so untouchable, why frame your entire song as an annoyed kiss-off, and then why tell all the ladies to use 'no' as a method to lure guys in, play the tease instead of being real with them. It gets genuinely uncomfortable on 'Kindly Calm Me Now', a lyrical sentiment I already dislike on the desaturated hook being paired with describing love as a pill and the line 'when my heart's not pure, will you heal my disease'? The song that really exasperated me was the ukulele ballad 'Just A Friend To You', a song where Meghan Trainor whines about being friendzoned and I'm left thinking that if any guy made this song in today's day and age they'd be barred from polite society! But let's consider the bigger picture and the loaded mixed message that this record sends: here's a load of empowerment anthems, ladies - which to be fair on songs like 'Woman Up' do have some punch - but you're going to be alone and friendzoned unless you submit to guys completely, even if you do deserve better - gross

Okay, that's probably a reach and I can guarantee Meghan Trainor was trying for something a little more straightforward, but that's what happens when you don't consider the subtext in your presentation - or hell, even the text, given how many godawful lines and sloppy rhymes are on this record! But truth be told, at the end of this day this record feels awkward and amateurish, even moreso than her debut which at least had a more defined sound that didn't chase modern pop and tropical house trends with shallower production. You could excuse more of this on her debut because it was clearly rushed out... but not here. For me, it's a strong 4/10 and I can't recommend it. I can appreciate Meghan Trainor's efforts here to follow-up a hit, but this is a messy sophomore slump, and while it might stretch her career a bit longer, I can't see this sticking around.

1 comment:

  1. So, usually i don't defend Trainor at all, but one correction needs to be made, in "No" the narrator is not playing the tease, but moreorless playing the No Scrubs card. The chorus of "If That Boy Ain't Giving Up" means if he's not stopping his tries, not if he's not putting out (My apologies If you knew that, but I've found myself correcting people constantly)