Review: How Gwen Stefani dug deep for her brutally honest new album
Sixteen years ago, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt sang about wanting “a simple kind of life.”
That’s not how things turned out.
Sure, No Doubt — the Anaheim ska-pop band that blasted off in 1995 with the zillion-selling album “Tragic Kingdom” — continued its straightforward ascent for a few more years, racking up hit songs with impressive efficiency through the mid-2000s.
But then Stefani launched a solo career that added new wrinkles to her sound and persona. She went into fashion and starting having children, which she’s said made a mess of her schedule. Following two huge solo records, she returned to No Doubt for a reunion album, 2012’s “Push and Shove,” which quickly fizzled, disrupting a narrative neatly defined to that point by success.
“Never thought this would happen ... Don’t know what I’m feeling,” she sings in “Used to Love You,” a moody, down-tempo single released only months after she filed for divorce.
Stefani dives deeply into those complications on her first solo album in a decade. Due Friday, “This Is What the Truth Feels Like” has songs about betrayal and disappointment, and songs about moving on from a broken relationship and falling in love again.
Yet given the untidiness of those themes — not to mention the sense of bewilderment she cops to more than once — what’s surprising about the album is the clarity with which Stefani expresses herself. It also offers proof, perhaps unexpected, that at 46 she’s figured out how to adapt modern pop to her needs.
Though she’s fixed in the public eye as a kind of glamorous goofball, Stefani has always sung about heartbreak, as in No Doubt’s smash power ballad “Don’t Speak.” Here, though, she’s dealing with wounds that are obviously still raw, and that seems to have inspired a newfound frankness we rarely hear from celebrities drawing on their real lives.
In “Used to Love You,” she’s “pulling back out the driveway” when the weight of reality crashes down on her. “I thought you loved me the most,” she sings, disarming you with the plainness of the sentiment.
Later, in the percussive “Red Flag,” her sorrow turns to anger as she looks back at the “warning signs” she now realizes she ignored in someone “living with no consequence.” The result, she decides with audible scorn, “is what happens when you don’t listen to what your mother say.”
Stefani is just as direct — maybe more so — in the songs that seem to reference her relationship with Shelton.
“I really don’t wanna embarrass myself,” she sings in “Truth,” a gently bubbling electro-pop track. “They’re all gonna say I’m rebounding.”
In the slinky “Send Me a Picture,” she’s wondering what her lover is doing while they’re apart. “Are you looking online? / Are you looking at me?” she sings over a pulsing synth line, and what a beautifully unashamed question that is.
For “Make Me Like You,” Stefani changes tack, summoning a bit of the appealing insolence that helped make her a star with No Doubt. With a wink, it’s basically saying, Thanks, buddy, for wrecking my hard-won independence. But the song’s sweeping melody puts across the same wide-eyed optimism as the gushier stuff.
“Make Me Like You” is one of several cuts produced by the Swedish duo Mattman & Robin, who’ve also worked with Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez. A savvy collaborator since her days with Eve and Pharrell Williams, Stefani assembled a team that also included the producers Greg Kurstin and J.R. Rotem, and the songwriters Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels; the rapper Fetty Wap puts in an appearance too in the trippy “Asking 4 It.”
But if these Top 40 fixtures make the album feel in keeping with current radio pop, they don’t crowd Stefani with unnecessary bells and whistles. Her singing — and, more important, what her singing is saying — is always front and center, which gives the music an intimate quality even at its most polished. (One exception: “Naughty,” a corny kiss-off to a no-good guy who’s been “shady so long that Mr. Shady is your name.”)
“This Is What the Truth Feels Like” closes with the tender “Rare,” in which Stefani describes her shock to have found someone, this late in the game, who might “wanna make some new memories with me.”
“I am broken / I am insecure, complicated,” she sings, but her voice isn’t sounding a note of caution. It’s full of pride.
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