The release of Meghan Trainor’s fifth studio album Takin’ It Back (2022), propelled forward by the viral lead single “Made You Look” which has currently been used in approximately 1.9 million videos on TikTok, sees Trainor taking a stab at reclaiming her status as a major player within the pop realm. Though Trainor released two albums in 2020, TREAT MYSELF (2020) and A Very Trainor Christmas (2020), her last major splash onto the music scene was in 2016 with the release of Thank You (2016), an album which featured massive hits such as “NO” and “Me Too.” While Takin’ It Back is not an outright awful album, it undeniably pales in comparison to its pop contemporaries (Taylor Swift’s Midnights and Carly Rae Jepsen’s The Loneliest Time were released on the same day) and feels destined for a short shelf life due to its unfortunate lack of cohesion and originality. Even apart from the competition (after all, comparing Swift’s sophisticated artistry to Trainor’s more simplistic style does a disservice to both artists), Takin’ It Back fails to surpass the heights set by her 2015 album Title.
As could be inferred by its not-so-subtle title, Takin’ it Back tries to take us back to Trainor’s glory days. Title is, in many ways, a stylistically simple yet effective record. Is it a work of genius? No, but it sure is a lot of fun, and it’s refreshingly self-aware about its intentions to not be taken too seriously which makes it all the more lovable, especially when combined with the campy-nostalgia factor that has accrued in the seven years since its debut. Standout singles like “Lips are Movin,’” “Title,” and “Dear Future Husband,” use bouncing horns, cheeky lyrics, and jazzy doo-wops to their fullest potential, creating a sonic profile that is cohesive without feeling too cookie-cutter.
While some songs on Takin’ it Back manage to recapture the magic of Trainor’s debut, such as “Made You Look,” “ Don’t I Make it Look Easy,” and “Lucky,” some selections from the tracklist such as “Superwoman” and “Mama Wanna Mambo” are uncertain as to whether they should try something new or cling to the comfortably compelling style of the Title days. Trainor’s inability to make a firm choice as to whether she should embrace or move past her earlier sound leaves Takin’ it Back pulled in two different directions, the past and the future, rather than as a body of work in which all parts are working together to accomplish the same goal. Amidst this identity crisis, Trainor ends up taking herself far too seriously, even making songs that successfully mimic the sound of her old music feel disingenuous to the carefree, tongue-in-cheek persona she is trying to embody.
Once Takin’ It Back perseveres past its grating opening track, “Sensitive (feat. Scott Hoying),” the album boasts a fairly commendable start. The charismatic and confident “Made You Look” is a particular stand-out. This song is effortlessly catchy, and I genuinely believe that the line about Trainor’s “14 carat cake” might’ve changed the trajectory of my life for the better. Title track “Takin’ it Back” and “Don’t I Make it Look Easy” keep the high spirits going, with the former featuring a smooth-as-butter bassline that slides across the rest of the instrumentation with ease.
While “Shook” falters in both its irritating repetition and its inescapable millennial-trying-to-use-Gen-Z-slang cringe factor (though, I must admit the line “‘Cause after one night, you’ll look for diamond rings / Yeah, that’s what I call breakfast at Tiffany’s” is pretty slick), “Bad for Me (feat. Teddy Swims)” and “Superwoman” make up for some lost groundwork by slowing things down and allowing Trainor’s soulful voice to shine through. Despite the disappointing lyrical simplicity of these tracks, particularly in “Bad for Me” where the rhyming of “letter” and “better” feels painfully elementary, Trainor’s impressive vocal performance largely overshadows these missteps. While the soft, acoustic “Superwoman” is a sonic singularity on this record, demonstrating Trainor’s aforementioned indecision regarding the direction in which she wants to take her artistry, I wouldn’t mind seeing a project where Trainor allows herself to fully embrace this acoustic style.
However, from “Rainbow” onward, Takin’ It Back’s successes become fewer and farther between. While “Rainbow” attempts to continue the previous songs’ sentimentality, here the cliches that were notable yet forgivable within the last two tracks become all too much to stomach. Obviously no one is expecting a Meghan Trainor album to have lyrical content fit to rival something like Midnights, but rather than simply being not special, the lyrical content is often an acute point of frustration that distracts the listener from the other redeemable elements of the tracks like the gorgeous cadence of Trainor’s voice. Also, how many more inspirational piano ballads about rainbows do we need as a society when Kesha and Kacey Musgraves already knocked it out of the park?
Sitting through the boring, recycled messaging of “Rainbow” doesn’t even yield a pot of gold at the end, as it is followed by more skips. “Breezy (feat. Theron Theron)” blows right through one ear and out the other. While much of the remainder of the album is similarly unmemorable, there are some gems sprinkled sparingly throughout Takin’ It Back’s back half, including the aforementioned “Lucky.” “Lucky” definitely has that Trainor-typical Target ad feel to the TJ Maxx, but somehow Trainor makes it an enjoyable listen with a simple, sassy chorus that cannot help but get stuck in your head. Furthermore, “Mama Wanna Mambo (ft. Natti Natasha and Arturo Sandoval),” despite its jarring deviation in style, is a surprisingly good time—I am patiently waiting for the accompanying Dancing with The Stars routine! Yet, while these two tracks manage to make a name for themselves amidst the melodramatic, monotonous mediocrity they are sandwiched in between, even they are nothing too special at the end of the day.
Though Takin’ It Back’s lyrical content is lackluster to say the least (seriously, Trainor could really benefit from hiring some better songwriters), this album mainly suffers from Trainor’s indecision as to whether she wants to keep the training wheels of her Title days on or take them off in favor of trying something new. While it is understandable that Trainor would want to cling to the coattails of her debut’s style since it proved to be very commercially successful, I would love to see her show that she has matured as an artist over the past seven years by being willing to evolve, especially considering her immense vocal talent. If Trainor does decide she wants to take the leap and change her sound, the key will be to make a full jump, not a baby step in which some songs seamlessly align with her old style and others offer a complete 180 degree turn, giving listeners whiplash. In other words, Trainor needs to recognize that she cannot have her “14 carat cake” and eat it too.
In the meantime, I am willing to wait patiently for Meghan Trainor’s Carly Rae Jepsen redemption arc. While both artists entered the industry around the same time with a similar bubblegum pop style, Jepsen’s work has matured greatly over the past decade while still staying true to her pop roots. If Jepsen can release an album like The Loneliest Time after getting her start from something like “Call Me Maybe,” then I have full confidence that Trainor is capable of springboarding off of “All About That Bass” into something similarly fantastic, so long as she allows herself the freedom to grow.