Album Review: Meghan Trainor's 'Title' Mixes Things Up to Mixed Results
In most of the eight weeks that fresh pop face Meghan Trainor's "All About That Bass" ruled the Billboard Hot 100 last summer and autumn, it was easy to figure it would be recalled as a one-off novelty. It got by on balancing nostalgic girl-group and doo-wop sounds with hip-hop attitude and a positive, love-your-body moral. (No mystery that Grammy-voting moms and dads lapped it up.) Then, in October, Trainor hit No. 4 with her follow-up, "Lips Are Movin'," in which the knowing line, "Tell me that you're not just about this bass," did triple duty: a rebuke to a shallow lover, a comedic callback and Trainor serving notice that she had more going on than a topical trifle -- though it also risked "Lips" coming off as "Bass, Part 2."
Her first major-label album subjects Trainor to a more exacting test. Sharing its meta-title Title with September's four-song EP, it's the culmination of the 21-year-old Trainor's meeting of minds with Nashville writer-producer Kevin Kadish, who is twice her age. He had reportedly nursed for years the concept of an early-1960s-styled revival sound -- think upbeat Amy Winehouse, sans drugs or demons -- before finding a conduit in Trainor's musical and lyrical skill as well as her girl-next-door, post-millennial sass. She was initially signed, Taylor Swift-like, as a Music Row composer in high school, though her graduation to fronting artist was less predictable -- she only released "Bass" herself after other artists, including Beyoncé, reportedly passed on recording the song.
The album opens with a 24-second "Mr. Sandman"-style intro, "The Best Part," in which Trainor declares her delight in being a songwriter. Like Swift's bonus-track "voice memos" on 1989, it seems designed to pre-empt any slander that she may not be the prime creative mover here. And as on 1989, "Bass" and "Lips Are Movin'," what this recently awkward adolescent has on her mind is self-respect, self-forgiveness and a robust skepticism toward cute boys' wiles. "What If I Want to Kiss You Tomorrow?" echoes girl-group classic "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" both musically and in mulling over the dangers of jumping into bed too fast. "Close Your Eyes," like many 21st-century self-esteem anthems, reassures girls they don't have to conform to be beautiful. "Dear Future Husband" and "Title" set out minimum standards for suitors. Meanwhile, "3 am" and "Walkashame" depict romantic missteps (drunken cellphone fails, a blotto one-night stand) with wry self-awareness.
These may be messages Trainor's fans want and need to hear, but they get repetitive, and the retro musical framing sometimes threatens to make her healthy-values emphasis seem dully quaint and cloying. She does occasionally mix it up, with mixed results. John Legend's duet vocals (he and Trainor share the same management company, Atom Factory) add deeper textures to the otherwise static "Like I'm Gonna Lose You." Elsewhere, "Bang Dem Sticks," which trades Kadish for New York production collective The Elev3n, extends the Caribbean and rap borrowings in other songs to the point of dubious racial mimicry, with Trainor affecting an accent ("dem sticks," to start) that seems strange for a Nantucket-born girl. Likewise, on the ska-inflected bonus track "No Good for You," Trainor skids into fake patois: "No, he no good, he no good for you." It's one of many moments when she recalls an American Lily Allen, and not in a good way.
On almost every track, though, you can't miss this young artist's skills with melodic and rhythmic hooks, turns of phrase and self-deprecating jokes, along with her fluid, flexible voice. Aside from an understandable naivete, Trainor's weaknesses are her stylistic cherry-picking and her compulsion to appear adorably relatable and socially correct all at once. But her career will live well beyond her breakout year if she can mature into the originality and messiness of her humanity with the same vivaciousness.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of Billboard.