We gave it a B
You know the routine by now: Artist or band scores huge success, takes four- or five-year break in an attempt to cope with fame and presumably amassed fortune, and returns accompanied by claims of musical growth and psychological maturity. The scenario is so familiar that one has the feeling it’s written into the language of contemporary record contracts.
The latest sensation to adhere to this career protocol is No Doubt, the Orange County jumping beans whose 1995 album, Tragic Kingdom, brought a surfboard-smooth variation of ska-pop into the mainstream and established lead singer Gwen Stefani as the cool older sister of the current teen-pop boom. Sure enough, a press release accompanying Return of Saturn, their first album since then, quotes Stefani asserting that the record ”shows how we’ve grown as a band and as songwriters.” (Advisory warning: Explicitly sensitive lyrics ahead.)
To her credit, Stefani isn’t blowing smoke through her nose ring. On their three previous albums, No Doubt were caught between several different stances: Were they refined surf-core punks or merely all-out mainstream rockers pretending to be the former? The band heard on Return of Saturn still bounces around on the kind of perky, reggae-inflected trampolines that can give you motion sickness. But with producer Glen Ballard (Alanis Morissette) behind the boards, they’ve calmed their caffeinated tendencies and concentrated on smoother, layered mid-tempo ballads as creamily textured as extra-thick napoleon pastries.
While hardly reinventing any type of wheel, manicured power pop like ”A Simple Kind of Life” and ”Magic’s in the Makeup” and sulky power ballads like ”Too Late” and ”Dark Blue” make good on Stefani’s remark; the melodies are buttery to the point of melting. Like a kid playing dress-up with his favorite doll, Ballard spends the album wrapping the band in different musical outfits. Sometimes the results work just fine (the retro, Cars-style spring of the single ”Ex Girlfriend” and ”Six Feet Under”), and sometimes they don’t (the lukewarm island groove of ”Marry Me” and the campy, vampy cabaret of ”Bathwater”).
If the band itself has discovered its inner Blondie, Stefani appears to have regressed emotionally. Return of Saturn isn’t a concept album (although, with a title like that, it could well have been), yet Stefani’s lyrics incessantly circle around the same theme: terminal insecurity and docility. To hear her tell it, she is continually drawn to bad boys who want to dump her (”New”), is so unsure of herself that she wants to keep her man on a leash (”Too Late”), and is always comparing herself to cuter girls she passes on the street (”Staring Problem”). She also keeps reminding us that it’s all her fault — that she’s ultimately too self-absorbed to be a mother (”A Simple Kind of Life”) and is a phony when she’s in the limelight (the topic of both ”Magic’s in the Makeup” and ”Artificial Sweetener”). A female singer with a more rugged voice might have made these sentiments resonate. But Stefani’s gulping-Kewpie-doll delivery only serves to make a song like ”Marry Me” (”I can’t help that I like to be kissed/And I wouldn’t mind if my name changed to Mrs.”) sound like the blatherings of the ultimate codependent.
Before this devolves into a rock-as-poetry discussion, let’s state the obvious — that lyrics are not the reason anyone listens to a No Doubt album, and Return of Saturn has enough mature oomph in its saddle to satisfy. But in light of the alternative rock scene from which the band emerged in the ’90s — one in which women displayed a strong sense of self, a quality that resonates in today’s friskier teen-pop minxes — Stefani’s constant self-flagellation feels like a throw-back. Teen People readers recently voted Return of Saturn the 2000 comeback album they were most awaiting, and you have to wonder what message Stefani’s words will send to those fans, who seem to view her as bitchin’ role model and founding mother of the new pop. They may have no effect at all, but even lovelorn teen girls may hear a song like ”Bathwater” — in which Stefani is so obsessed with another ”naughty” boy that she wants to sit in a tub of his watery germs — and think it’s pretty yucky. B