“Save Me, San Francisco” by Train

I will give Train this much—they’re the most interestingly bad act in Pop music today. Not the worst, by any means, but the most colorful and fascinating in their awfulness. This is rather surprising, given that they started out in the early 2000s as the definition of a competent but dull Soft Rock outfit (comparable to pre-NativeOneRepublic). They did manage to produce one enduring classic, the song “Drops of Jupiter”, but otherwise, they never seemed particularly notable for much of anything.

They followed the standard career path for that kind of band, too…producing a single hit each from their first three albums, and breaking up after their failed fourth album. But in 2009 they reunited, claiming to have stopped worrying about what the world thought of them and rediscovered the joys of just making music. This album was the result, and while it certainly put them back on top commercially, from an artistic perspective, I’d argue that maybe they should have paid a little more attention to the ‘what the world thinks’ angle. Admittedly, the album was a hit, but it also made them the laughingstock of the Pop music world.

This may not be the worst album I’ve ever reviewed, but it unquestionably has the worst lyrics out of all of them. The lyrics on this album are simply insane, filled with stream-of-consciousness non-sequiturs, incredibly poorly-chosen analogies, and random Pop culture references from decades ago. The two big hits, “Hey Soul Sister” and “If It’s Love”, while based on a very simple premise (the proverbial “silly love songs” template), are two of the most bizarre songs of the decade. The former builds a chorus around a reference to a half-forgotten Soft Rock band, contains some frankly disgusting choice of imagery, and for some reason feels the need to insert the phrase “So gangsta/I’m so thug” into an acoustic Soft Rock ballad, a move that has become legendary among enthusiasts of famously bad songs.

“If It’s Love” is less patently ridiculous, but far more confusing, as it’s often genuinely unclear what the Hell the singer thinks he’s talking about. “Breakfast in Bed” is much the same as these two songs, with an increasingly bizarre choice of analogies to refer to the girl in question (“You’re the skin I never want to shed”). The cloying “I Got You” is relatively normal for most of its running time, but has one incredibly misguided moment where the singer compares his love to Sonny and Cher, then seems to backtrack when he suddenly remembers how that relationship ended.

“Marry Me”, the third Top Forty hit from the album, is crazy in a subtler but no less disturbing way. Here, the actual word choices are relatively toned-down…it’s the premise itself that makes the song so insane. For those of you who are familiar with Weird Al Yankovich’s Mandatory Fun album, do you remember the song “Jackson Park Express”? You know, the one where the singer has an elaborate fantasy about a relationship with someone he’s never spoken to, who’s merely sitting across from him on the subway? Well, imagine that exact same premise, but meant completely seriously and without a hint of irony, and you have this song. You actually have to be listening pretty closely to catch it, but once you do, it’s hard not to cringe.

At least the crazier parts of the album are if nothing else entertaining, but much of the material is simply boring. When the lyrics aren’t being utterly surreal, they’re simply arch and trite, dripping with gooey sentimentality and relying on the most hackneyed love song cliches available. And the music doesn’t exactly liven things up, either. Train’s sound may be rooted in Adult Alternative acts like the Counting Crows, but their tone owes more than a little to the dull, sludgy Post-Grunge that dominated the Mainstream Rock scene when they debuted, and if their lyrics have worsened considerably, their actual musical sound hasn’t changed much since then.

Also, something definitely seems to have happened to singer Pat Monahan’s voice during the period where the band was broken up. Monahan was never an especially interesting singer to begin with, but on all of Train’s post-comeback material, he sings in this wrecked, nasal squeak of a voice that just makes the band’s material even more unbearable than it already is.

I suppose I understand how someone who was only familiar with the hits like “Hey Soul Sister” or (from their next album) “Drive By” or “50 Ways To Say Goodbye” might come to the conclusion that Train were a group of absurdist geniuses that were creating this kind of insanity on purpose. But given that about half of this album consists of sentimental tripe that never remotely rises to that level of inspired craziness, it seems unlikely that that effect was deliberate, which leaves the band as merely a bunch of massively incompetent imbeciles who have no idea how insane their material sounds. It’s not the most charitable view of the band’s intentions, but it’s the only one that seems to make sense once you’ve heard their albums as a whole.

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