When “NO”, the lead single from Thank You, came out back in March, it was an indicator that Meghan Trainor would be changing things up for her second album. A slow, soulful intro finds Trainor patronizing a male admirer: “I think it’s so cute / And it’s so sweet / How you let your friends encourage you to try and talk to me / But let me stop you there / Oh, before you speak…”. Then the beat kicks in and the chorus hits and suddenly it’s the late ‘90s and Trainor is channeling Destiny’s Child and other pop/R&B acts from the turn of the century. “NO” is a far cry from the doo wop and early girl group-inspired songs that put Trainor on the map, but the timing is great. Released between Beyoncé’s “Formation” and the full album Lemonade, a song that amounts to an old-school Beyoncé riff was a smart move from Trainor and Epic label chief L.A. Reid. Reid sent Trainor back to the drawing board after she attempted to turn in Thank You to Epic and he didn’t hear a first single. “NO” is the result. The song fits right in Trainor’s wheelhouse with its “women making their own choices” point of view. “My name is / No / My Sign is / No / My number is / No / You’ve got to let it go” is a strong response to hypothetical club creeps who think that women who are out without a man are looking for one.
If “NO”, which comes third in sequence on Thank You, represents a strong new sound for Trainor, the record’s first two songs are more problematic. Opener “Watch Me Do” uses a ‘70s funk bedrock with excellent drum fills and a strong horn chart. Trainor coos, “I’m the shhhh / Be quiet / I’ve been on a / Low-hater diet,” and it’s a pretty strong hook. Her James Brown references, “I feel so good / Like James Brown in his day” and a Brown-style “Watch me!” are also catchy. But the song contains lines like “I get all choked up / When I see how much I made,” which is a pretty rough shift from ingénue to braggadocious star. It seems like Trainor might have been better served making sure this second album was a success and that she actually had a long-term career in music before starting to talk about how great she was in her own songs. The lyrics of “Watch Me Do” are also a collection of lines lifted, intentionally or not, from various rappers (http://www.fuse.tv/2016/03/meghan-trainor-watch-me-do-song).
Second song and second single “Me Too” is similarly interesting and problematic. The verses cruise on a minimalist musical bed that’s just a bass line, finger snaps, and popping mouth percussion, which is quite cool. The bright R&B pre-chorus makes for a good contrast, and there are a couple of clever lines here. “My life’s a movie / Tom Cruise / So bless me, baby / Ah-choo!” is probably the best, but the chorus, “If I was you / I’d wanna be me, too,” is once again uncomfortably boastful, not to mention denigrating to her own audience. And then there’s the icky faux-Eastern European accent she dons, making the word “wanna” sound like “vahna” for no particular reason.
Fortunately, from “NO” onwards, Thank You is much more on-message lyrically while Trainor continues to take chances musically. “Hopeless Romantic” is a quiet ballad, featuring a simple guitar accompaniment and layered harmony vocals. Those vocals once again are reminiscent of the ‘90s, although the touchstone here seems to recall the songs of Boyz II Men. The album’s other ballad, “Just a Friend to You”, comes ninth on the record and is the first song that really recalls the doo wop/girl group-indebted sound of her debut. It’s a bright, easygoing song buttressed by strings but driven by ukulele strumming.
“Better” and “I Won’t Let You Down” are an interesting duo of songs because of their opposing lyrical points of view. The former has steel percussion, syncopated guitar, and a loping beat, giving it a vaguely non-specific Caribbean feel. But the point, indeed the whole chorus, is “I deserve better / Better than you.” That’s a personal statement from Trainor as well as an exhortation to her listeners with bad boyfriends to “Tell ‘em ‘I deserve better’ / Tell ‘em what they already know: ‘I deserve better.’” On the other side is “I Won’t Let You Down”, which is the better song, a pure, joyful pop confection. In this one, Trainor herself is the problem and her significant other is the one that deserves better. Literally. “I hurt the one I love the most / And you’re the one I love the most / I shoulda put away my phone / I know, I know, I know that you deserve better.” It would be more compelling if these two songs were from two sides of the same relationship, or related in any way. But despite both songs being catchy and “I Won’t Let You Down” being near-great, it seems like, sadly, this is just a case of standard pop song subjects and nothing intentional.
Most of Trainor’s forays into different styles of pop work pretty well, with only the lyrics occasionally tripping her up. “Champagne Problems”, which closes the standard version of the album, is an example of this. It’s a perfectly serviceable song based around simple piano chords and a thumping beat, but the lyrics are inane. Trainor complains about really trivial things in the verses, like wi-fi not working and her phone dying, before concluding that she “Can’t complain at all / Life’s too short for that” in the pre-chorus. And then she complains more in the subsequent verses to make for a really annoying, lyrically tone-deaf song. The one place the music fails her is “Kindly Calm Me Down”, which is the kind of minor key piano-based power ballad that explodes into an epic chorus of pounding drums and backing choral vocals. Meghan Trainor doing Evanescence or Imagine Dragons is not a particularly good fit, it turns out.
What is a good fit is the back end of the album, where Trainor returns to the sound that made her a success. “Dance Like Yo Daddy” is a goofy song that celebrates dancing without a care, using a simple drum beat, a cowbell, and a persistent baritone sax riff. It also features Trainor describing a dance that ends with “Can you overbite / Can you old man overbite? / Simon says go touch your nose / Meghan says touch your toes (I, I can’t touch my toes).” This is fun and disarming, as is the song’s end, when she attempts to go “Ayy, ayy, ayy” but then breaks down laughing. “Mom” goes so far as to have genuine girl group backing vocals in addition to a full Motown-style horn section. It’s silly, but it also feels honest — I believe Meghan Trainor thinks her mother is the best mom in the world after hearing the song. That sentiment is reinforced by Trainor’s inclusion of a phone call between her and her mother that is short and full of inane “I love you” platitudes. The call is so inconsequential that there would be no reason to put it on the album if it wasn’t genuine.
Thank You is an interesting album in that it shows musical growth for Meghan Trainor while simultaneously moving her closer to the more homogenous sound of mainstream pop. It’s not great by any means, but it is definitely catchy and easy to sing along with; strong qualities for pop music. The problem is that the retro pop sound was what made her distinctive and a lot of the songs on Thank You, while good, are much less distinctive. But one suspects that L.A. Reid and his cohorts at Epic were worried that Trainor’s original style was not so much “distinctive” as a novelty. And novelty acts rarely have careers. So by pushing Trainor and her songwriting collaborators to go beyond her ‘50s/early ‘60s leanings and try more modern styles, they theoretically keep her relevant to mainstream listeners. It remains to be seen whether this will work out. On the positive side, Trainor is still only 22 and has a firm hand in the songwriting and production aspects of her music. Hopefully she can learn to strike a balance between her own musical desires and the commercial demands of a major label record industry still struggling to adapt to the realities of the 21st century music business.