Gwen Stefani rules over her own tragic kingdom on ‘This Is What The Truth Feels Like’

This Is What the Truth Feels Like is a comfortable, familiar record, but it’s also the most radio-pop album of Gwen Stefani’s career. Even at 46, she’s still the eternal teenager, says RICHARD S HE.

We identify with Gwen Stefani as much as we did Kurt Cobain or Alanis Morissette. We wanted to be her in the ’90s; we felt her pain on ‘Don’t Speak’, too. In the 2000s, she jumped onto the Neptunes bandwagon at exactly the right time, and adjusted her image to boot. She transitioned from popstar to domestic goddess, celebrity mother of three.

“A pleasant surprise – when it’s good, it’s really good”

Stefani left No Doubt to find artistic freedom, but by 2006’s The Sweet Escape, she might have found too much. Her albums were like her fashion lines, all about wacky experimentation, but those adventurous early singles soon turned into ‘Wind It Up’, one of the most nonsensical pop songs ever written. No Doubt eventually reunited, but 2012’s Push and Shove barely made an impact. Two 2014 solo singles came and went.

And so, The Voice and the tabloids kept Gwen in the public eye – a celebrity first, artist second. She became a mother, assimilated into Hollywood, sanded down all her sharp edges. It’s enough to make you wonder – was Gwen ever really cool? Did she just have her finger on the pulse for an uncannily long time? So This Is What the Truth Feels Like comes as a pleasant surprise – when it’s good, it’s really good.

Her recent divorce from Bush singer Gavin Rossdale, her husband of 14 years, played out as a classic tabloid scandal. Now, as the Daily Mail or Ellen DeGeneres would say, she’s got a new man, new songs, new vulnerability. This Is What the Truth Feels Like plays to that older, female crowd. It’s “confessional”, but it’s vague, universal. It’s not even half as cutting as Return of Saturn, maybe No Doubt’s best album, where Gwen truly laid out all her deepest insecurities.

Truth is as much a Julia Michaels/Justin Tranter album as a Gwen Stefani one. She’s a 22-year-old songwriting prodigy; he fronted the glam rock band Semi Precious Weapons, famous for opening for Lady Gaga and not being very good. The two of them have just recently become part of the giant Max Martin/Dr. Luke/Stargate pop factory, writing Justin Bieber’s ‘Sorry’, Hailee Steinfeld’s ‘Love Myself’, and Selena Gomez’s ‘Hands to Myself’ in 2015 alone.

Modern EDM and hip-hop producers build songs around loops, but Michaels and Tranter have an almost Brill Building-like approach to songcraft. Their songs are characterised by clear, crisp hooks and melody lines, anchored by big, romantic chord progressions. Like Sia, they’re songwriters, not producers; they’re not particularly swayed by trends, but their approach is just modern enough.

Gwen spent most of her previous two solo albums flirting with trends, but what she needed this time around was songs. This is the first time the duo have written with an artist on an entire album, but their chemistry’s so strong they might as well be the new No Doubt. But they’re not storytellers, so Truth’s lyrical themes and backstory are all Gwen. She’s not playing characters or trying on outfits – she’s just herself.

‘Used to Love You’, the first single, is the Stefani-Michaels-Tranter trio at their best. It’s a breakup song, but it’s neither a dramatic ballad nor a peppy kiss-off. Its chorus is written around an unwieldy phrase – “I don’t know why I cry / But I think it’s because I remembered for the first time / Since I hated you / That I used to love you”. And there’s the classically Gwen yelp that serves as the song’s hook – “I USED to love YOU!” It’s the saddest and most triumphant moment on the album. It’s tough to capture ambiguity in a three-minute pop song, but Gwen has an emotional maturity that only comes with age.

The first half of Truth is refreshingly low-key, even quiet. Much of it addresses Gwen’s new love, country singer and fellow The Voice judge Blake Shelton. ‘You’re My Favorite’ and ‘Truth’ are all negative space, unlike anything Gwen’s ever done; ‘Where Would I Be?’ nails the exact midpoint between Madonna and Ace of Base. On the other hand, ‘Make Me Like You’ sounds like the factory-issue Maroon 5 disco that’s all over the charts. It’d be total fluff if sung by anyone else, but Gwen’s charisma makes it work.

Unfortunately, the album’s third quarter takes a steep nosedive. ‘Red Flag’ and ‘Naughty’ are exactly the kind of hip-hop flirtations she shouldn’t be recording. ‘Asking 4 It’ features Fetty Wap, but it sounds like Gwen accidentally stumbled onto one of his songs. They’re embarrassing, not because of her age or parental status, but because her songwriting isn’t compatible, her voice doesn’t fit. ‘Hollaback Girl’ only worked once. These songs aren’t cute, or funny – they’re just atonal.

“Nostalgia comes and goes in 20-year cycles. 21 years after Tragic Kingdom, Gwen Stefani still fits right in”

The strangest development in all this is that No Doubt’s three other members have formed a side project with AFI’s singer Davey Havok. Both parties seem to be cool with it. The yet-unnamed band won’t literally be No Doubt, but it’ll be impossible not to compare the two – especially because Davey Havok’s charming, androgynous, melodramatic, and more than a match for Gwen. The rest of No Doubt are just freeing the repressed punk rock band inside them, unheard from since the ‘90s. But still, doesn’t it feel like another breakup?

If you miss the old No Doubt, put on Charli XCX’s Sucker, or Best Coast’s California Nights. If you wonder why Selena Gomez, Hailee Steinfeld or Justin Bieber sound eerily like Gwen Stefani, thank Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels – they’re only just getting started. Gwen kicked down doors for all of them, alternative, pop, or both – but now, they’re peers. Nostalgia comes and goes in 20-year cycles. 21 years after Tragic Kingdom, Gwen Stefani still fits right in.

6/10 stars

Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic. People still don’t take him seriously. You can read his tweets about Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ at @Richaod.