Gwen Stefani’s defining album “The Sweet Escape” came out in 2006 and made it to No. 3 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Considering that success, it is surprising that Stefani’s next and latest solo album arrived March 18, 2016. During that window of 10 years, Stefani grew a lot as a person and an artist. But her penchant for Top 40 hits and a distinct voice remains on “This Is What the Truth Feels Like.”
At what point does an artist’s personal life become part of her art and therefore pertinent to the public? After 13 years of marriage, Stefani and Gavin Rossdale filed for divorce 2015. At this point, she scrapped the album that was in progress and decided to begin anew. A month later, Stefani and her co-judge from “The Voice,” Blake Shelton, publicly announced their relationship.
From then to now (and probably until the day they break up or die), the media has closely followed and questioned their relationship. Stefani is a prominent artist in the public’s eye, but she manages not to get consumed in the drama that surrounds her. Instead, she concentrates her thoughts and emotions into her music.
Looking back on Stefani’s work, including her visual imagery with the music itself, she’s usually distinct. There’s plenty of color, trendiness and cultural appropriation. Remember “Harajuku Girls”? I still have a love/hate memory of that. I just wish a white person had not brought the aesthetic to mainstream America. With “This Is What the Truth Feels Like,” the listeners thankfully get little to none of that. In an age of the visual albums, Stefani focuses on herself as a person rather than a brand and the finished musical product illuminates this.
“This Is What the Truth Feels Like” is a solid, consistent album. Those with expectations for an overly emotional album that reveals secrets set themselves up for disappointment. As always, Gwen Stefani has two personas that manifest with matching lyrics and tones. One is more classically synth pop. She’s bubbly and light. Personally, I prefer this energy. It comes through very well on songs like “Make Me Like You” and “Misery,” with the latter leading the album as a wonderful song that builds. On the song, Stefani emotes well to set up the headspace for her and the listener during the rest of the album. She asks someone to “pull me out of misery.”
From the album, it seems clear that music is her savior and she loves it. Perhaps the long break from making music allowed her to sound like she enjoys making music in a way that doesn’t always come through from bigger pop stars who churn out major albums every or every other year.
Stefani’s pop personality is largely impersonal, but I don’t consider autobiographical storytelling imperative to music that makes me smile. Like Carly Rae Jepson’s amazing album “Emotion,” pop music that is produced and sung well has value and comes across as deceptively simple—or, at worst, bland. This alleged blandness could be covered up with costumes, dancing and elaborative marketing, but that feels unnecessary when it’s not pulled off perfectly.
The other voice that comes from Stefani is probably the one she’s more known for. Bratty, squealing and with stronger rock influences. Voices like this and Charli XCX are very popular right now and increasingly common. I disagree that punkish attitudes in pop songs benefit from these unnatural vocal affectations. “Red Flag” is one of these punky, whiny songs as it has no discernible chorus or typical structure. Those aren’t always necessarily bad things, but they are for this song, which really does not work.
On “Naughty,” this voice works better. The song feels just as fun and catchy as most of the album does, but the tone is slightly out of place in some moments of the song. If you listen to the almost nonsensical lyrics, the song becomes worse, so try not to. That instruction works well for all of the songs that have this voice.
Also, Stefani clearly displays her experience as an artist throughout the album. Her long period of time off from recording gave her a maturity not previously seen in her music. So, an effort to sound younger (not just young adult, but possibly under 18) feels uncomfortable and so obviously forced. Stefani’s voice sounds unique and captivating enough without any added effects.
The album starts and ends with her iconic pop voice. “Rare” closes the album on a lovely, though unmemorable, note. Additionally, the three songs chosen as singles thus far have this lighter voice. Therefore, the pop attitude feels truer than other artists in the industry that produce music for commercial success. Feelings have little to do with “This Is What the Truth Feels Like,” but that doesn’t take away from this catchy, organized album. Stefani sings her truth in her own ways and listeners need not question the message.