Meghan Trainor had an enviable ‘problem’ that most struggling musicians would die for: how to build on the promise of a blindingly successful debut work. Her breakout hit, “All About the Bass”, from her first album, 2014’s Title, was a number-one hit and became an earworm classic of the summer of that year. Her next singles hit the top 20, with two managing the top 10. Her early success was capped with a Grammy for Best New Artist. Since “All About the Bass”, Trainor has had to work hard to wrest her career out of the shadow of her early triumph. Her second album, 2016’s Thankful, seemed like a deliberate shift in her sound, from the catchy, slightly gimmicky doo-wop and throw-back pop of Title to a glossier, slinkier dance-pop. The remake wasn’t a runaway hit, and though she progressed nicely with her niche in the pop world, it wasn’t the sky-high heights of her debut.
So, the title of her fifth album, Takin’ It Back, perfectly encapsulates the project’s thesis. It’s a return, of a kind, to the pretty, slightly eccentric pop of Title. In an interview with Rolling Stone’s Tomás Mier, Trainor admitted that she “stopped chasing radio and what I thought people wanted to hear and just wrote what I enjoyed”. Mier described the album as Title 2.0, calling it a “return to her roots”. It makes sense that Trainor would look to Title as inspiration for her latest after seeing her other albums miss the kind of white-hot success of her first record.
But it would be a mistake to call Takin’ It Back a retread. It does recall Title’s swinging doo-wop, but that album was sung and written by an artist who was starting – there was an appealing novelty about her. There’s a sheen on Takin’ It Back that reflects Trainor’s superstardom. The singer on Takin’ It Back displays confidence from becoming a major pop star.
She approaches Takin’ It Back with an assured swagger. That is the only explanation for the extremely old-school opener “Sensitive”, which sounds like a radio hit from the 1950s filtered through a shiny, crisp studio sparkle of 2022. Joined by Scott Hoying of the viral superstar group, Pentatonix, the acapella tune is built on a scaffolding of airtight harmonies. It doesn’t sound a whole lot like what’s playing on pop radio at the moment.
Though doo-wop finds itself on Takin’ It Back, the 1950s isn’t the only decade represented on the LP. She also looks to Motown and Carole King-like Brill Building pop. But there are also sounds of the 1970s, particularly with the midtempo disco funk of “Dance About It”, that shows she hasn’t abandoned her dance-pop diva persona of Thankful. “Made You Look” sounds like a spiritual sequel to “All About the Bass”, down to the pouty, surly delivery and the girl group arrangement. Trainor also indulges in her love of mambo as well as lite reggae-pop.
Though the catchy pop on the record is good, it can sound light and airy to the point of candy floss. Trainor has an unerring ear for pop hooks, and she’s a strong songwriter, but the music can sometimes come off as inconsequential. Even the feminist anthem she penned for Jennifer Lopez, “Ain’t Your Mama”, sounds frothy. That’s why when Trainor digs deeper into her resourceful pool of talent to write something more substantial, the results are stunning and give us a glimpse of what this woman can do. Case in point: “Bad for Me” is a stirring and moving gospel hymn that is a pop masterpiece. Teddy Swims’ gravelly growl matches her gorgeous vocals. The bruising lyrics tell the story of a doomed relationship in which our heroine struggles.
The other high point on the album is the lilting “Superwoman”, a beautiful ballad that eschews the rah-rah “you go, girl!” sloganeering of pop-feminism implied by the song’s title. Instead, it’s an achingly open and vulnerable poem about a woman trying to be everything to everyone. Trainor’s honesty in the track is breathtaking: she gives voice to the myriad identities and spaces women have to navigate, strong and vulnerable, successful yet humble. It’s a frank tune in which she admits that she “can’t do it all / So call me superwoman, but I know I’m not that strong.” When she asks, “Even heroes cry / So why can’t I?” she upends the shiny happy-talk that proclaims women as “Girlboss” without considering how difficult it can be to hold everything together. “Superwoman” is a splendid achievement.
Towering tracks like “Superwoman” and “Bad for Me”, as well as the moody, ruminative “Final Breath” are nestled in brightly colored bubblegum pop, which highlights Trainor’s formidable talents as a top-shelf pop tunesmith but also of Takin’ It Back’s stylistic lightness. It makes for a welcome return for one of pop’s most original voices, but not necessarily a definitive one.