Since ending a three-year hiatus in 2009, Train hasn’t stopped rolling. On the group’s last two albums, 2009’s Save Me, San Francisco and 2012’s California 37, the Bay Area rock band buffed out the rootsier and rockier aspects of its sound for a more pop-centric approach. The shift has yielded strong returns: 2009’s “Hey, Soul Sister” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and 2012’s “Drive By” topped the Adult Contemporary chart.
Train’s seventh album, Bulletproof Picasso, is an extension of its bid for mainstream glory. Credit the group’s continuing hard-turn into pop at least partly to its collaborators: Espionage, the Norwegian duo consisting of Espen Lind and Amund Bjorklund behind Beyoncé’s 2006 hit “Irreplaceable,” co-writes on the twangy lead single “Angel in Blue Jeans,” and Butch Walker (Pink, Katy Perry), Greg Kurstin (Sia) and Eg White (Adele) contribute to the set as well. On paper, this lineup comes off like a bizarre attempt at radio relevancy for already successful rockers in their mid-40s. But in practice, it has resulted in a wildly eclectic, and surprisingly engrossing, product. Picasso may not be as off-the-wall as California 37 (replete with a quasi-rap track and pop-culture references), but it’s far from paint-by-numbers pop. Leadoff cut “Cadillac, Cadillac” rides guitar chord stabs and a faux reggae rhythm, with vocalist Pat Monahan rhyming “Cadillac” with “Bernie Mac.” And “Wonder What You’re Doing for the Rest of Your Life,” propelled by wispy guitars, a percussive beat and Monahan’s elastic vocals (the band’s defining characteristic), is so giddy and effervescent that it floats toward the sky.
This wholehearted embrace of pop has unshackled Train, allowing it to revel in anything-goes stylistic tourism. On Bulletproof Picasso, that means a big-beat singalong anthem like “I Will Remember” can sit beside an oily funk workout (“The Bridge”), a slow burner (“Give It All”) and a country noir ode to whiskey and women (“I’m Drinkin’ Tonight”). And it all feels oddly cohesive, with the band’s rocker roots showing an impressive pliability to move within pop’s boundaries. When the LP ends with the gentle ballad “Don’t Grow Up So Fast,” it’s clear that Train knows how to get from one point to the next.