Excerpt from The Alex Lifeson Memorial Conservatory of Popular Music Presents History and Trends in Popular Music, Vol. 10 (2010-2019), published September 18th, 2112:
…and so I congratulated Mr. Richards and heartily shook his hand, thanking him profusely for the interview. It was a bittersweet occasion, Richards’ 168th birthday soiree coming only days after Neil Young, the only other living contender for Oldest Man in the World, suffered the tragic John Deere accident that cut him down in the prime of his hundreds.
From there, it was on to the last item on my checklist: California pop/rock ensemble Train. Led by journeyman lead singer and songwriter Pat Monahan, Train began their popular music career in 1998, buoyed by the success of first single “Meet Virginia”. Coupled with later single “Drops of Jupiter”, Train became immediately popular in the niche market of songs that describe a woman by listing a series of vaguely quirky qualities, and then discussing, via their catchy refrains, how they yearn to link with said woman romantically. [An interesting historical footnote: Years later, both Virginia Adley and June Porter would tragically take their lives in the span of two days, shortly after Monahan revealed them to be the inspirations behind two of his biggest hits. This led to journalists and bloggers referring to Monahan as "Snidely Whiplash", because "you die when you get tied to the Train tracks."]
Train’s formula for mainstream acceptance led them to multiple Grammy Awards and chart success aplenty. Late 2009 brought “Hey, Soul Sister” to the masses, and reintroduced the band to the world of FM radio royalty. This chapter in Train’s story would meet its tragic end, however, in 2015.
In June of that year, their rarely-lauded but inexplicably well-attended Midnight Train In Georgia Festival ran for two nights just outside of Atlanta. On the second night of the festival, designed as a showcase for nominally-talented but aggressively mediocre musical acts, sets by openers Maroon 5 and OneRepublic went off without a hitch, but Train’s got off to a tragic start when a spirited rendition of “Hey, Soul Sister” triggered a scientific anomaly. When Monahan reached the song’s bridge and 440,000 fans sang the line “so gangster, I’m so thug” in unison, it resulted in what the science community now believes is the first example of spontaneous ironic combustion. The irony of the open-shirted, soccer-coach-esque Monahan singing such a line combined with the sheer volume of people singing along caused thousands of Train fans to simply explode.
Monahan has only been seen in public once since, scaring away intrusive fans from the balcony of a San Francisco hotel with his haggard white beard and his open robe. He reportedly delivered a drunken rendition of the “Drops of Jupiter” chorus and flashed photographers. He is quoted as repeatedly shouting “hey world, look at my balls!”
2012’s California 37 remains Train’s final release, save for 2016’s odds and sods collection So Gangster, purchased a record-shattering zero times by a listening public intensely fearful of exploding on first listen. Listening to California 37 in retrospect, it’s impossible to predict the dark turn Train’s future would take. It finds Train settling easily into their established sound, breezy and inoffensive, but, as reviewers would later point out, utterly impossible to connect with; it also finds Monahan’s lyrical penchant for then-timely pop-culture references and vague couplets multiplied exponentially.
An archived review from now-renowned pop-culture blog Popblerd touches upon this strange dichotomy between Train’s staid musical milieu and Monahan’s rambling, opaque beat poetry. Written upon California 37‘s release by a prominent critic credited simply as “Drew”, the piece appears to betray cracks in the writer’s very sanity. After some research, I’ve concluded that “Drew” is merely a nickname for a public figure all are bound to recognize by name alone: Andrew Ratliff. It’s a name so infamous that elaboration isn’t entirely necessary, but in the interest of historical accuracy, I’ll delineate several of his claims to fame in the following paragraph.
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Yes, with such a lengthy list of high-profile accomplishments, it’s hard to believe Ratliff began his career humbly reviewing pop music. Drew appears perturbed at the band’s popularity, especially in the wake of the retrospectively-dangerous “Hey, Soul Sister”:
While California 37 boasts many of Train’s breeziest and bounciest tunes, it’s also indicative of a larger problem: we must stop Pat Monahan from writing lyrics as soon as possible. The tidal wave of weird pop-culture references starts to crest right around the album’s 0:01 moment, when “This’ll Be My Year” commences with a “We Didn’t Start the Fire”-worthy string of unconnected events and public figures. Boris Yeltsin, Ronald Reagan, Freddie Mercury, Princess Diana… [Editor's note: List of pop-culture name-checks truncated in the interest of conserving space.] It seems to do nothing but denote the passage of time leading up to the hook, wherein Monahan opines that maybe this will be “[his] year”; these exuberant refrains aren’t immune to Monahan’s MTV-obsessed pen, though, noting that “I’ll stop believin’ even Journey told me don’t”.
It’s important to note that Ratliff here refers to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”, a 1980’s anthem that enjoyed a second resurgence in the late 2000s thanks to ironic appropriation from television programs like “Family Guy” and “The Sopranos”. Ratliff, a noted karaoke enthusiast, was famously vehement in his rancorous hatred of everything about the tune.
The reviewer then goes on to lament first single “Drive By”, insisting that the chorus lyric about “a shy guy looking for a two-ply Hefty bag to hold my love” is a “nonsensical series of rhymes that signifies nothing outside of it’s author’s lyrical ineptitude and perceived cleverness.” He then chastises “Feels Good At First” for sounding like a carbon copy of earlier Train single “Marry Me”, which he refers to as “a calculated attempt at crafting a first-dance song for when two incredibly boring people get married.” Ratliff’s disdain extends to “50 Ways to Say Goodbye”, which he likens to “a warmed-over mariachi take on Paul Simon’s ’50 Ways to Leave Your Lover’ as filtered through an excruciatingly dumb country-music lyric”, and “Mermaid”, which he boils down to a sole thesis statement: “Pat Monahan would like very much to bang a mermaid. Next song.”
Interestingly enough, however, Mr. Ratliff devotes an entire paragraph to admitting that Train’s hooks and musicianship could, theoretically, yield a reasonably palatable pop-rock band if it weren’t for their “head-slapping lyrical lunacy”. An excerpt:
And, see, that’s the problem: Train are, on paper, a perfectly acceptable band. Despite his head-slapping lyrical lunacy, Pat Monahan is an expressive and dynamic singer, a rigorous tenor with a pleasant tone. The tunes are uniformly solid, too, with choruses that lodge themselves immediately in the frontal lobe; and on the rare occasion that Monahan’s lyrics actually appear genuine, the results are entirely likable, as on the folksy, sweetly-harmonized “Bruises”, which casts Monahan and guest vocalist Ashley Monroe as old high-school acquaintances wistfully reminiscing about their shared past. It’s a frustrating reminder of how enjoyable Train could be if they weren’t dead-set on crafting the most boneheaded lyrical content this side of Lil’ Wayne. And even though Lil’ Wayne’s latest record was perfectly acceptable sonically, I lambasted it on the basis of his abhorrent lyrical content; I don’t see why the standard should be different for Train.
He then goes on to quote the entirety of “You Can Finally Meet My Mom”, which begins with the line “don’t cry when I die, when it’s my time I probably won’t die… I’ll just lie down and close my eyes and think about stuff”, and proceeds to dismantle it line by line, pointing out its utter stupidity. It clocks in at even longer than this piece, and is an excoriating piece about the depths of one man’s hatred for another man’s flagrant lyrical inanity.
Other critics came to share Andrew Ratliff’s opinion of California 37, and the album was universally panned, despite it’s catchy melodies and summery vibe. The choir that crops up on “Meet My Mom” was eventually blacklisted, and was never heard on another release by a middling pop-rock ensemble. This, of course, inadvertently lead to Matchbox Twenty entirely reinventing the wheel for their 2014 comeback record, an album now lauded as a Dark Side of the Moon-esque classic.
Next up: “Even Beiber Ain’t Forever: Pat Monahan, the Snidely Whiplash Curse, and the Tragic Downfall of a Teen Idol”.
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