Gwen Stefani has been away from the pop music scene for some time now. If you don’t count the No Doubt “comeback” album that never really was, 2012’s underrated Push and Shove (and I don’t), it’s been almost a decade. 2006’s The Sweet Escape was a mixed bag of a record, containing some really stellar tracks (the album’s title track, “Early Winter,” “4 in the Morning” to name a few) but was bogged down by too many filler tracks that never lived up to the level of her No Doubt efforts, or even her now iconic solo debut album Love. Angel. Music. Baby.
Though she can churn out a basic, infectious pop anthem (“Wind It Up,” “Rich Girl,” “Hollaback Girl”) Setfani is at her best when she’s being personal. “What You Waiting For,” “Cool,” “Early Winter” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” are all essential listens, and each detail a story or conflict straight from the singer/songwriter’s life.
Enter This Is What The Truth Feels Like. The title alone suggests we’re in store for a more vulnerable side of Gwen. When you place the album within the context of the fallout between her and ex-hubby Gavin Rossdale, there’s a lot of potential here for some great, relatable pop songs. Lead single “Used To Love You” is the best thing Stefani has done since she released “The Sweet Escape” as a lead single. “Suitcase, band-aids/Pulling back out the driveway/You go, I’ll stay/You can keep all the memories” she croons, simultaneously bruising your heart in the process. It’s such a vivid picture that makes for the perfect pop record.
The song was co-written by Justin Tranter, who has also written for Selena Gomez (“Good For You,” “Me & the Rhythm”), Justin Bieber (“Sorry”), Hailee Steinfeld (“Love Myself”) and DNCE (“Cake By The Ocean”), which might shed some light as to why it works so well aside from its reliability. She brought in Tranter to co-write several other songs on the album, including current single “Make Me Like You.”
Stefani was clearly not messing around while putting this record together. Aside from Tranter’s involvement, Greg Kurstin, Julia Michaels and J.R. Rotem all have co-writing and/or producing credits. Following floundering buzz singles like “Baby Don’t Lie” and “Start The Fire,” she obviously wanted to make an impact.
This Is What The Truth Feels Like is a very solid pop album. There’s a lot of admirably sleek, genre hopping music; “Red Flag” and “Naughty,” feature several genre influences but are otherwise unlistenable misfires. The “Hollaback Girl” jazzy sounding “Where Would I Be” and Fetty Wap assisted banger “Asking For It” are much better reps for Stefani’s versatility. “Make Me Like You” showcases her ability to tap into that young, undeniable rush to the head kind of love that we oftentimes don’t get to hear about from pop stars over the age of 25. I’ve read some reviews clocking her for singing about such topics reserved for the Ariana Grande’s and Taylor Swift’s, but Stefani is not just any pop star. Even if she was who cares? Her age is irrelevant; It’s more impressive that after all this time working in the industry, her knack for sharp songwriting and her ear for a hook hasn’t slowed down.
Props are in order; Not many singer/songwriters have the knack to make such heavy material so downright listenable. “Rare,” the album’s closer and my personal favorite from the album, is perhaps the best evidence of this. “I am broken, I am insecure, complicated, oh yeah that’s for sure. I feel worthless, I’ve been hurt so bad, I get nervous that you won’t love me back,” she sings over a minimalist guitar backing before exploding into pure pop, melancholic bliss.
And if you thought she cared about your thoughts concerning her heavily publicized romance with Blake Shelton, well, you thought wrong. It’s clear the relationship has picked Stefani up and out from the bad place she was in with Rossdale, placing her in a much more confident, assured and sunny mindset. The aptly named “Truth” puts her feelings right at the forefront:
“No one’s gonna believe me not even myself. They’re all gonna say I’m rebounding so rebound all over me, cus I don’t want nobody else. I know we said we’re gonna live in the moment, and that’s all good that’s what we agreed on I know it. Everyday I believe in you and me more and more. It’s crazy that’s for sure. Thank you for saving me I can’t believe it.”
This Is What The Truth Feels Like stands as tall as Love.Angel.Music.Baby. never eclipsing or falling short of its pop brilliance. Though, I will say Stefani sounds better and more confident on the former than she does on the latter. That may come from a few more years in the business, but I would knock it up to a phoenix being reborn from the ashes. Congratulations Gwen, and welcome back.
***Essential Tracks: “You’re My Favorite,” “Where Would I Be,” “Truth,” “Used To Love You,” “Asking For It (feat. Fetty Wap),” “Rare”***