Coming from a group that isn't necessarily known for taking a huge number of musical chances, Train's sixth record, "California 37," is one of the year's most lyrically bold albums. Would that this were a good thing.
You might even say Pat Monahan has gone off the rails since writing 2001's "Drops of Jupiter," still one of the most perfectly formed singles of the 21st century. Invoking Mr. Mister because it rhymed with "soul sister" a couple years ago abetted his band's comeback, and that success has given Monahan courage to write a series of highly autobiographical, often defiantly silly songs with enough pop culture references to rival Stephen King's entire library.
The opening track, "This'll Be My Year," bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire," but imagine if Joel really intended his history tour as a backdrop for bragging about Christie Brinkley. In this unofficial remake, Monahan offers a quick, newsy tour of his adult life, starting with 1985 ("Nintendo comes/Live Aid too"), continuing through 1989 ("Pete Rose is banned for good/The Simpsons come to Hollywood"), and lingering to place special emphasis on 2004, the year he hooked up with his beloved second wife: "Facebook joins the Internet/Oldsmobile joins the cassette/I met your family. …"
No, seriously, these are the actual lyrics.
He waxes confessional again in the title track, celebrating Train's renewed success and dishing on (apparently) his ex-wife and former bandmates, as well as critics. "Here’s to those who didn’t think Train could ever roll again/You were the fuel I used when inspiration hit a dead end," he sings. Fair enough. But things get wackier when he seems to get into personnel issues with long-fired band members: "Replaced greed with gratitude/Then replaced a pretty key dude/It's all truth, not being rude." Word to your manager!
As for the mother of his two oldest children, Monahan isn't pulling many punches. "Ding dong, the witch ain't dead/She's still trying to take my bread/Four more years till my girl's all grown/Then the bitch gonna have to leave me alone." That'll be a fun verse to discuss at the next custodial hand-over.
That's a rare moment of vitriol, as Train's conductor is clearly a true romantic who's still deeply in love with his current spouse. She surely inspired "Mermaid," in which Monahan sings, "All the boyfish in the sea/They all wish they could be me." He also adds, "Had I known it could come true/I would have wished in '92/For a mermaid just like you," bringing up the year he married his first wife, which further suggests some Lingering Issues.
But the real test of whether you're a true Train fan may be "You Can Finally Meet My Mom," the first tender ballad about the afterlife ever to name-check Gilda Radner and Andre the Giant. "Whoever goes first, save a spot," Monahan sings, a sweet (if hackneyed) sentiment that gets lost as the singer reels off lists of famous people he won't even bother hanging out with in heaven because, you know, he'll still be so besotted with his bride. Among those he'll ignore: Jesus, Buddha, Paul Newman, Bach, Chris Farley, Chet Baker, "the dude who played the sherriff in 'Blazing Saddles'," and, to be up to date on the dead, Steve Jobs and Whitney Houston.
He also briefly references still-living celebrities ("Even Bieber ain't forever," he philosophizes) and imagines his deathbed thoughts: "Should have spent less time making loot/And spent more time in my birthday suit, with you."
Mortal coil to Monahan: Get a room — and an editor.
Since it may not be readily apparent from any of these highly quotable excerpts, Monahan remains a tremendously skilled pop craftsman. Evidence of that does creep out, when he's not taking his cues from the hip-hop school of romantic comedy writing.
"Feels Good at First" marks a return to Train's earlier, more acoustic sound, not to mention more honestly wistful lyrics, as Monahan celebrates the amnesia about love that accompanies each new crush. "50 Ways to Say Goodbye," despite its weird Paul Simon rip of a title, proves that it's hard to go wrong combining guitar power chords with mariachi horns.
And Monahan isn't letting the fact that a duet with Martina McBride, "Marry Me," is stalling on the country chart keep him from continuing to keep his toe in the Tennessee water. On "Bruises," he trades lines with the Pistol Annies' Ashley Monroe—who's destined to be a star in her own right one of these days—as they play high school pals catching up after 10 years. "These bruises make for better conversation," they sing, proving that Monahan can still come up with a decent line or two when he's not trying so hard.
But to get to these highlights, you first have to pass the blatantly Bon Jovi-aping chorus of "This'll Be My Year," which offers immediate indication of just how far Monahan will go to bury any emotionalism in sheer sheen nowadays. Things generally improve when the old-school mandolin or ukelele kicks back in, in place of anthemic excess.
But it's not until you hear a frenzied 30-second guitar solo in the middle of the otherwise laid-back "We Were Made for This" that you realize just how little band spirit the rest of the album has. Officially, at least, Monahan never did "replace (that) pretty key dude"—if he's talking about their old guitar player—and the lack of a true ensemble shows.
If only Monahan could be convinced to play it less safe with the sonic template … and safer with the defiantly ridiculous wordplay. (Yes, this might be the first time any critic has ever wished a mainstream rock act would get lyrically blander.)