Long before she took over a judges chair on The Voice and became Blake Shelton’s headline snatching main squeeze, there’s really no need to argue that Ms. Gwen Stefani owned the mainstream music world. First in the mid ’90s with her merry No Doubt band mates (how many times have you butchered “Don’t Speak” at karaoke nights?), then eventually going on to slay a solo music career with two successful albums–2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and 2006’s The Sweet Escape.
But after the final thumps of her so-so sophomore set faded away, Stefani strayed away from the music spotlight to spend time focusing on her family (she’s a working and recently divorced Mom of three) and fashion empire, While she did link up with her No Doubt besties again in 2012 for their sixth studio album, Push & Shove, the record was more or less (okay, less) a “buzzworthy” album rather than playing a part in helping put her back on the mainstream music map where she rightfully deserves to be. And now it seems as with her hot-to-headphones new set, This is What the Truth Feels Like, she’s finally going to have the chance to reclaim her music throne once again.
After a scrapped album with two failed single attempts in late 2014– “Baby Don’t Lie” and “Spark the Fire”–Stefani has (finally) come back with a shot to own it all again with her revamped and ravishing third solo studio set, which was certainly worth the long wait. A fun, fiery romp, Gavin Rossdale’s ex boo thang strikes back with a swinging record that’s not just loaded with radio ready grooves and slick productions, but a new-found confidence that feels honest, light, more relaxed and certainly miles away from anything she “teased” us with almost two years ago now.
Kicking things off is the No Doubt singed opener, “Misery,” and while it deals with brutally honest lyrics (as most of the lyrics on the album do, but that’s actually what makes this record worth your headphones time)about that new love angst, the whirling number plays out as a breezy ride that sets up the cheeky, yet serious tone for the entire set. We can’t escape the fact that “Truth” is the operative word on Ms. Gwen’s sassy new collection, and that’s exactly what we get from an album that is derived directly from her recent, much-documented romantic upheavals, including her much, much publicized spilt from Gavin Rossdale.
Those that have followed the diva early own know that she’s always had a keen sense in being a guileless kind of pop star, one whose best tracks are also her most personal: “Don’t Speak” certainly proves that theory, as does 2001’s tender, vulnerable “Underneath It All”—and more recently Truth’s heart wrenching lead single, “Used to Love You.” Part burn and part fuck off, it’s musically laced with small, yet harrowing details (“Suitcase, Band-Aids/Pulling back out the driveway/You go, I’ll stay”) that help ground the record when it wanders into more generic dear-diary reflections on love lost and found. Case in point, the vast difference in tone of perky Truth second single, “Let Me Like You.”
However, we can’t forget that this is also the diva who crushed the charts with the bubble gum cracking sass of “Hollaback Girl” over a decade ago, and a select number of tracks, like the reggae tinged “Where Would I Be” and even the roller-disco ready bounce of “Make Me Like You,” are so mindlessly fun that they easily take us back to the Harajuku Girls days. (sigh) Even on grittier Gwen grooves like the rattling “Naughty” and the trunk ready flair of “Asking 4 It” (complete with a guest spit from Fetty Wap) and “Red Flag,” the songstress still manages to serve up glossy hooks with a side of verbal nunchucks. Hey, that’s her shit, right? And this album proves that it still most certainly is.
But what makes this album really pop is that a majority of the cuts were produced by the Swedish duo Mattman & Robin as well as Greg Kurstin, who’ve recently helmed hits for Selena Gomez (“Me and the Rhythm”) and Taylor Swift. The producers easily slide their savvy production swagger underneath Gwen’s polished vocals, which have never sounded more sexy, more cool and most of all–more relaxed, which is evidently true in slinky standout “Send Me a Picture.” A deep ditty in which the diva’s wondering what her lover is doing (Mr. Shelton, we presume?) while they’re apart. “Are you looking online? / Are you looking at me?” she sings over a scandalous synth drop, and what a relevantly seasoned question that is.
Now that Ms. Stefani’s well received new set is finally upon us, the real question arises–is it solid enough to put her back on top of the mainstream music world? Because let’s face it, at 46 years old, she is right in that dreaded “middle-aged diva” territory, and we all know that the struggle can get real pretty quick for those who’ve crossed the over forty border. Case in point, the upcoming E! docuseries, Mariah’s World. Enough said.
However, those now grown up kids who’ve gotten down with Gwen since those beloved No Doubt and “Hollaback” days, give this album a chance. Besides the fact that it’s actually quite good, it’s also a strong, solid reminder that Gwen Stefani is much more than a judge on The Voice and a recurring tabloid fixture–she’s a true music icon, and This is What The Truth Feels Like credibly proves that theory and then some.
“I am broken / I am insecure, complicated,” Gwen sings on tender album closer, “Rare,” but her voice isn’t sounding a note of caution as it’s vivaciously filled with a newfound sense full of pride, which is all we ever wanted from her in the first place.