Release Date: Mar 18, 2016
Record label: Interscope
Genre(s): Pop, Pop/Rock, Adult Alternative Pop/Rock, Contemporary Pop/Rock, Alternative Dance, Dance-Rock
They say that great writers don't wait around for inspiration—that they work on their craft daily: Ernest Hemmingway wrote every morning; Franz Kafka wrote in the evening; Maya Angelou rented a local hotel room and worked from 6:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., reviewing what she wrote each night and often discarding it. Gwen Stefani, who's never been shy about her struggles with artistic motivation, seems to have turned that old axiom on its head.
Recorded in the aftermath of Stefani’s divorce from Gavin Rossdale, her third solo album was never going to be Vulnicura – the heart-wrenching 2015 breakup album by Bjork. Even so, the emphasis here is on bouncy, sonically unadventurous pop, and fixated on Stefani’s new relationship with The Voice co-star Blake Shelton. Former cooler producers like Pharrell Williams are conspicuous by their absence.
If there's a moment that sums up why Gwen Stefani is so eternally beloved, it's the surreal scene from The Voice last fall when she led her team through New Radicals' "You Get What You Give" in a swirl of confetti. Only Stefani could sound so perky while threatening to kick Marilyn Manson's ass in. This is the first solo album in a decade from one of the Nineties' most improbably long-running superstars – the dowager countess of our nation's ska moms.
It's hard to view the title of This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Gwen Stefani's first solo album in ten years, as anything other than confession: she's put away childish things so she can focus on what's real. Given that her past decade consisted of raising kids, divorcing a husband, stumbling through a No Doubt reunion, and finding redemption as a television star, there's a lot of ground for her to cover, which may be why This Is What the Truth Feels Like feels like a bit of mess. Some of this incoherence is endemic to pop in the mid-2010s, where standard operating procedure calls for superstars to work with a revolving team of producers, not a key collaborator.
For a generation of quirky girls, No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani was the Grimes of 1995. She had the kind of look that parents hate (her hair was pink, or blue, or no-way-that’s-natural blonde, her midriff was perpetually exposed) and a punk-ish sneer, and she was at her finest when she was all riled up. She was also, crucially, a product of the post-grunge alternative landscape, in which an Orange County ska band could edge up their sound and land a song on the Top 10 for 15 weeks.
No Doubt are one of the great examples of a band with a back catalogue that’s largely removed from their biggest hit. ‘Don’t Speak’ is the archetypal heartbreak ballad, and a mighty fine one at that, but the conventional wisdom is that it stuck out like a sore thumb both from the record it was on, Tragic Kingdom, and the Anaheim outfit’s canon as a whole. Both charges are fair, too; that 1995 breakthrough album is otherwise equal parts ska, punk and uptempo pop, whilst the electro extrapolation of those ideas on follow-up Return of Saturn, the delve into Jamaican dancehall on Rock Steady and the out-and-out ska scruffiness of their first two albums all largely skirted around straightforward chart pop.
From 12 years’ distance, 2004’s Love.Angel.Music.Baby. looks a little bit like a minor pop classic. Shorn of the elaborate, symbolic, inevitably political apparatus of the modern pop album — it’s not that it didn’t have any; it’s that what it had mostly involved a small adoring harem of fashion-forward Japanese girls and is best forgotten — Gwen Stefani’s solo debut remains the kind of album that gets pop nerds excited.
In a recent interview with Carson Daly, Gwen Stefani went into details of her new album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like, and the divorce that largely spawned its contents. “I called us the Breakfast Club,” she said, describing her writing team. “The moment I walked into the studio, I was like, ‘Listen, I don’t care about anything. I don’t care about hits … All I want to do is just say the truth.’” While that was likely a really cathartic, uplifting experience for her (much like watching The Breakfast Club as a teenager), the negative of that experience is translated to the listener.
Pop music has always been about smoke and mirrors, but Gwen Stefani’s third solo album feels particularly calculated. On the strength of its songs, it’s hard not to see it as a cynical vehicle for her newfound primetime position on the US version of The Voice and her high-profile relationship with fellow judge Blake Shelton: they are weaker than a hinge on one of those swivel chairs. A team of Sia/Katy Perry/Adele hitmakers have been drafted in to forklift Stefani’s sound to similar heights, but the result is a familiar storyboard of proven radio formulas: Bieberish dancehall-house on Send Me a Picture, Zedd-aping tropical disco-house on Rare; Make Me Like You lives by the disco stomp you’ve heard everywhere since Get Lucky and the popular trap trimmings reign supreme, as on the Fetty Wap-adorned Asking 4 It.
How much you’re able to actually enjoy Gwen Stefani’s first new solo album in 10 years, the thoroughly enjoyable “This Is What the Truth Feels Like,” might depend on how much you know — and care — about the No Doubt frontwoman’s personal life, and the drama within it that provided the spark, igniting her creative flame. If you know nothing — you absolutely needn’t, and might be better off that way — then the 12-track collection could impress with its buoyant grooves, shiny production (with help from folks like the great J.R. Rotem and Greg Kurstin), hummable melodies, and the pure Gwen-ness of its unabashedly lovey dovey lyrics, whimsical flourishes, and romantic effusiveness.
"Never thought this would happen," Gwen Stefani sings on her new album, "Don't know what I'm feeling. " "Never thought this would happen," Gwen Stefani sings on her new album, "Don't know what I'm feeling. " Sixteen years ago, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt sang about wanting "a simple kind of life.
There are a number of ways of dealing with writer’s block and each comes with varying degrees of success. Options include: a brisk walk around the park; necking half a bottle of whiskey; or experiencing the shattering, soul-destroying end of a relationship. Eternally youthful fashion-pop superstar Gwen Stefani – who turns 47 this year – has opted for the latter.
I DON’T BLAME YOU if you expected Gwen Stefani’s third album, This Is What The Truth Feels Like, to be her best. Stefani’s first two solo albums, released in the mid-2000s, felt like fantastic examples of pop’s post-modern potential. Here was a ‘90s ska-punk singer in her mid-thirties sampling Fiddler on the Roof and The Sound Of Music while cribbing an aesthetic from hip-hop, Harajuku, and film noir.