Gwen Stefani’s status as pop star has taken a back seat to her current high profile gig as one of the hosts of The Voice as well as tabloid fodder given her recent divorce from Bush singer/guitarist Gavin Rossdale as well as her even more-recent coupling with Voice co-host Blake Shelton. But Ms. Stefani is trying to right that with the release of This Is What the Truth Feels Like, her third solo outing and first in 10 years. She hasn’t exactly been silent in that decade: there was the mild success of a No Doubt reunion record, Push and Shove, in 2012, and there were a couple singles that didn’t do anything on the charts. But judging from the sounds and collaborators on This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Stefani was carefully keeping an eye on an industry she ruled so easily 10 years ago.
It’d be tempting to call this her “breakup” record – and she does include songs that may allude to the end of her marriage. But that’d be too simple. Stefani is far too savvy a pop star, and instead has crafted a big-budgeted monstrosity that will appeal to all kinds of markets – she crams synthpop, dance, rap, dancehall, AC, pop, and disco in one album, and to her credit (well, to the credit of the small army of songwriters and producers tasked to make this thing), the album sounds cohesive and neat.
One of the smartest things Stefani did was allow her sound to grow, but not depart too much from her signature music. In the past, she has found success in trashy, ridiculous bits of pop like “Hollaback Girl” and “Wind It Up.” Her lyrics were often schoolyard/jump rope chants shouted over processed beats. With This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Stefani hews closer to the “Don’t Speak” chanteuse, wearing her broken heart on her sleeve. In the process, she’s come out with a surprisingly compelling record.
The album’s opener “Misery” is a a standout and a great way to open the record. Stefani’s vocals are rueful and sad, and the music itself is a great harkback to 80s synthpop, complete with dramatic choruses, echoes, and crashing drums. The song is also moody and sounds like something The Cure or Depeche Mode would’ve turned down as too mainstream or too pop. Like “Misery,” “Truth” is another soul-baring song that glides on shiny, pop-perfect production. “Used to Love You” is also another tear-stained synthy pop number that has Stefani’s gulping vocals recall heartbreak and heartache.
But it’s not all sadness and gloom. First and foremost, Stefani is a pop star. The album’s lead single “Make Me Like You” is an excellent disco number that will remind folks of the MTV-era Stefani. It’s a roller rink number that moves briskly with some nifty guitar licks swirling synthesizers. It recalls 70s-era dance music in the best way, without sounding derivative or musty.
Not all of the record works – “Naughty” is a loud mess with off-putting vocals and Stefani’s ill-advised penchant for spitting rhymes and “Red Flag” has the same issue (though the crawling, buzzy synthesizer is pretty cool). And Stefani’s voice is an acquired taste: it can be fun and pleasant, but it can also sound honking and shrill (this is especially true in the more novelty-like numbers). When she’s practicing restraint, she can sound lovely, but too often, she adopts a yucky brashness that can be very off putting.
In the end, though This Is What the Truth Feels Like does what it sets out to do: provide a nice, comfy home for some catchy singles that should extend Stefani’s chart reign. Gwen Stefani was never a particularly innovative artist, nor was she really all that transgressive. Her music has always been fun dance music, so it’s nice to see her noodle a bit with her successful formula to do something a bit more substantial.