Train, or as Wikipedia calls them, Train (band), is an American roots-rock band, known for the hit songs “Hey Soul Sister,” “Calling All Angels,” and “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me).” They have sold millions of records and won Grammy awards, but more notably, they are the subject of this year’s Terrible Artist Spotlight, still going strong-ish on its fourth annual entry.
I will begin with a personal anecdote about Train (band). I attended the 44th Grammy Awards in 2002, as a journalist for a small company you never heard of. In spite of that, I got to be in the press room along with the big-shot music writers and feel important. Someone else was feeling important that night: Pat Monahan, songwriter and lead singer of Train. He’d just won a Grammy for Best Rock Song and came backstage to the press room, along with at least two of his bandmates (my memory is hazy) to be interviewed.
The thing is, no one wanted to talk to Pat Monahan, songwriter and lead singer of Train. We were busy watching the rest of the show and writing up our stories. So the Train guys stood there for about ten seconds, nobody saying anything, until their handler began to escort them into the next room, where a hundred photographers were standing by to dutifully take their picture holding their new Grammy hardware.
At this point, Monahan, apparently annoyed that none of the music journalists wanted to interview him, grabbed the microphone and tossed off a sarcastic rejoinder to our silence in the presence of Best Rock Song Grammy-winning band Train. “Thanks guys. You’re doing good work. Keep up the good work. Working hard in here.” Or words to that effect (hazy again). Then they left.
Anyway, Train got started in the 1990s, and in the intervening years you may have heard their boring, middle-of-the-road songs on one of many teen soap operas that aired on The WB. It’s hard for me to believe this band was formed in San Francisco. I’ve been to SF in the ’90s, when some neighborhoods were still seedy and the city had not yet been overrun by tech bros riding Bird scooters on their Snapchats (I assume). How these milquetoast pop rockers came out of there is unknown to me.
The band’s first major hit was “Meet Virginia,” establishing their pattern early on as Bros Who Do Songs About Women. You see, Virginia, she’s different. Per the song, she doesn’t own a dress, and her hair is always a mess! (Those words rhyme.) She drinks coffee at midnight, and does quirky things like wants to live her life. OMG IKR?
I mean, women, huh? Not that there’s anything wrong with men writing songs about women — that’s the basis of at least 80 percent of rock music. Still, Train’s approach is the musical equivalent of an “If you don’t love me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best” tank top. Celebrating the pointless; greeting complexity with pseudo-profundities. Like the man looking back on his life from “I Am”: “Am I the man I think I wanna be?” Or the guy singing to his departing girlfriend in “If You Leave”: “Your new belief is my regret/and my regret leaves you to believe.” Deep, man.
The band’s next hit was “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me),” from 2001’s album of the same name, which Monahan wrote about his dead mother. He’d had a dream where she visited him from the far reaches of the universe, hence the “drops of Jupiter in her hair” and other lyrics about constellations, the Milky Way, etc. The rest of the song is a twelve-car pile-up of meaningless clichés, like “time to change,” “room to grow,” “plain Jane,” “sweep you off your feet,” and “blow your mind” — though name-dropping the late-’90s fitness craze Tae Bo is unexpected, I’ll give you that.
2003 saw the release of My Private Nation, featuring the single “Calling All Angels,” which went platinum and was on adult contemporary radio for a year or so. I don’t really want to get into describing it, because it’s more of the same. Train’s 2007 record For Me, It’s You did poorly commercially and critically, and Train took a hiatus. When they regrouped in 2009, they put out the record Save Me, San Francisco, which guitarist Jimmy Stafford said would help the band recapture their original San Francisco vibe. Again: I’m not certain these guys have ever been to SF. Anyway, this record catapulted them back into the limelight with the hit single “Hey, Soul Sister.” Inexplicably, Monahan attributes the creation of this catchy little ditty to Burning Man.
Yes, the real Burning Man, not some other thing that happens to have the same name. This vapid, blue-eyed-soul pop song; this track produced by Swedish duo Espionage, known for their work with Beyoncé, Chris Brown, and Jordin Sparks; this ukulele-heavy schmaltz was inspired by the steampunk-sunburn neo-pagan desert art car rally.
Or rather, by Monahan’s idea of Burning Man. You see, he had never been to the event, but he’d heard of it, and his understanding was it was a place where “beautiful women dance around a fire.” That’s it. That’s the inspiration for this song: a rich tool mistaking a radical, communitarian, anti-establishment celebration for a beach bonfire with some hot chicks.
Just to be clear, Train didn’t cut this song in the late ’90s, when Burning Man was just starting to permeate the pop culture consciousness. They recorded it in 2009. By then, multiple books and documentary films about Burning Man had been released. Newspapers, magazines, and blogs were writing it up annually. The incident where some dude set the Man on fire early and got arrested for arson happened in 2007. It was on the news. Nine years had passed since The Simpsons first name-checked the festival. People knew what Burning Man was. And here comes Monahan, misunderstanding what this well-known event actually is, and then viewing that idea through his tattooed bro perspective, and coming out with this song. Worst part of all? “Hey, Soul Sister” was the best-selling song in America in 2010 and won another Grammy. What a fucking world.
Did you know Train makes wine? Well, they don’t make it, but they partnered with a vintner who makes it and they put their labels on it. The money goes to Family House, a nonprofit in San Francisco that provides temporary housing to families whose critically ill children are being treated at UCSF children’s hospital. In service to the Terrible Artist Spotlight Challenge, I purchased a bottle of Soul Sister Pinot Noir and found it to be light and fruity. I still don’t know why the label has a dude playing saxophone on it, since the song features precisely zero saxophones.
Train’s personnel have varied through the years. Considering Monahan is the creative driving force behind the band’s output, it’s not surprising that Train sounds pretty much the same despite a rotating cast of characters surrounding him. I won’t get into the details except to call your attention to former drummer Drew Shoals, who left the band last year so he could return to his day job as a lawyer. Adorably, he lists his time with Train on his LinkedIn as if it was any other job, outlining his responsibilities and accomplishments in standard resumé format.
Why do we think Train (band) is terrible? I can only speak for myself, but certainly I find their aggressive douchebaggery rather offensive. Still, can’t a bunch of bros who play guitar, spike and dye their hair black, sport tattoos and leather and boots and jewelry and soul patches — couldn’t they still make decent music, regardless of what they look like?
I guess they could, but these guys don’t. My big complaint about Train is they took all the garbage qualities of bands like Creed and Nickelback — emulating the look and feel of grunge while playing megachurch pop rock — and watered it down even further. Monahan’s falsetto, the earworm hooks, lyrics about women who are angels that saved a downtrodden man’s life; it’s like their songs were genetically engineered for people who might like nu-metal if it wasn’t so scary. There’s a reason Train makes wine and not beer.
Monahan himself seems pretty shallow. His lyrics are typically trying to express some sort of inchoate sense of loss, nostalgia, and confusion, or in his later career, gratitude towards an incredible woman he’ll never understand. In execution, they’re almost entirely vague banalities, and abstract to the point of meaningless. Take this verse from “Calling All Angels,”:
I need a sign to let me know you’re here
’Cause my TV set just keeps it all from being clear
I want a reason for the way things have to be
I need a hand to help build up some kind of hope inside of me
You don’t understand “the way things have to be”? That hardly strikes me as a scenario where you need to invoke celestial guidance. Then there are these lyrics from the title track off Save Me, San Francisco:
I used to love the Tenderloin
Til I made some tender coin
Then I met some ladies from Marin
We took the highway to the one
Up the coast to catch some sun
There are just so many things wrong with this verse, I almost don’t know where to begin. The Tenderloin is a sketchy neighborhood in SF, known for its heroin addicts, strip clubs, SRO hotels, sex workers, and Banksy street art. This does not jibe with Train’s middle-America roots rocker image. “Tender coin” is a terrible rhyme. Marin is a wealthy enclave north of S.F., but you would never go north of there to “catch some sun” because it’s cold and foggy 11 months out of the year. “The one” is State Route 1, except that calling freeways “the ___” is a Southern California affectation (“the 405,” etc.), and nobody in NorCal does that. You just say, “one.” Also, every line in this song that name-checks a San Francisco landmark does it for no reason, or to force another dumb rhyme. “Every day’s so caffeinated/I wish they were Golden Gated.” Uh, same?
Let’s not stop there. How about these creepy lines from “Breakfast in Bed”:
California, dancing in the ocean
How I love you, better with some lotion
When in Norway you can do me more ways
Than any other, you treat me like a mother loves her baby
You’re the fastest race I ever led
You’re the finest bride I’ll ever wed
You’re the skin I never wanna shed
You’re breakfast in bed.
You’re the skin I … OK, we’re moving on now.
Here’s an interview Monahan gave to Runners World, because apparently he runs. In fact, when Train is on tour, he likes to set up a treadmill outdoors, so he can go on a run without getting lost. The interview includes some really profound insights, like running makes him feel healthy and helps clear his mind.
At that same Grammy awards ceremony I covered, U2 won a bunch of awards. Naturally, when they came backstage, plenty of us wanted to ask them questions, and you would not be surprised to learn that Bono shared many, many thoughts with us. He talked about deliberately recording All That You Can’t Leave Behind as an effort to see if rock music could still be relevant in the 21st Century. He talked about the roots of bluegrass music, as this was the year that the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack ended up winning a bunch of Grammys. He talked about what the idea of America meant to him and to the world—just five months after 9/11, when the national wound was still raw.
“I actually believe in the idea of America, and I’m really encouraged that that idea might catch on in the wake of this tragedy, and that might be a fitting memorial for the people who lost their lives.”
Whatever your opinions on Bono, that he’s a blowhard or a hypocrite, that he should stick to music, that he’s done the right thing by using his celebrity to advocate for social justice on a global scale — he’s a thoughtful person who has something intelligent to say. Too bad you can’t make the same argument about the guys in Train.