I hate to be a grumpy, embittered and nostalgic but Gwen Stefani used to be interesting. She had pink hair when it was actually difficult to dye your hair pink. She had an irrepressible energy and an infectious playfulness. She could laugh at herself while delving into interesting subjects like the challenges faced by being a girl fronting an all-male band in an all-male rock scene (Just A Girl if you didn’t catch that reference). She also knew how to write a break-up song – Don’t Speak is an anthem for the brokenhearted. Her later work has been more commercialized and mainstream pop-orientated but she still maintained a certain iconography – Gwen Stefani conjured up an image of someone who was fiercely independent while still being sexy as hell.
This is What the Truth Feels Like is Stefani’s first solo album in ten years and comes in the wake of several serious personal changes in Stefani’s life: the break-up of her fourteen-year marriage to Bush front-man Gavin Rossdale and her new relationship with country star Blake Shelton. Stefani has referred to this as a “break-up” record and so you would anticipate a certain amount of angst and raw catharsis to through. Unfortunately, This is What the Truth Feels Like is far from the battle cry one might be hoping for.
The album’s songs vacillate between the pain of her break-up and the revelation of her new relationship. Loss and redemption are the backbone of many a great album but instead of properly exploring these themes the album gets stuck somewhere in between them. And the results are not exactly positive. This is the overall sentiment of one of the most enduring artists of our generation: when you get knocked by one guy, you can always hope you will be saved by another. Yay feminism (I’ve said this before in a previous review but it bears repeating).
I have listened to this album three times and not a single song on it is even remotely memorable. I can hum the several bars from the chorus of Make Me Like You, only because it is on constant rotation at my place of work. After a while, the songs begin to sound all the same – one synth-dance song sounds much like another, and the few times where there were breaks in this formula mostly made me cringe. Both Where Would I Be? and Red Flag involve Stefani rapping, which is awkward and cumbersome. Used To Love You seems like it is supposed to be the soul-baring ballad of the album but instead is painfully melodramatic approaching Bonnie Tyler territory. And then there are the stylistic choices that is just plain baffling: as previously mentioned I listened to this album three times and not once did I understand a word of Fetty Wap’s heavily slurred rap/song cameo on Asking 4 It. Internet research assures me that it was indeed in English and that Wap hails from, of all places, New Jersey. Send Me a Picture, about the joys of sexting has lyrics so bad that she is giving The Black-Eyed Peas a run for their money. There are moments of decent song-writing – Lovable has a nice hook and some of the fight you might have hoped for in a woman clawing her way back from a broken heart. But by the time it gets to this song, the tedium of the rest of the album is too overwhelming.
But the biggest problem is that in the end is that I did not feel as though I could hear Stefani’s unique voice. At all. In bringing in big-name songwriters (such as Sia – is it a law now that Sia has to write a song for every mainstream pop album?) and producers to curate this album, somewhere along the line Gwen Stefani got lost in the mix. Every song reminded me of some other artist, whether it was Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus or even Ace of Base. I would have more respect for Stefani if she had gone out on a totally different limb and risked failure, but that’s the problem with this album – there’s no risk whatsoever. This the album feels as packaged as a series of car commercials; slick, well-produced but soulless.
Click here to listen to Make Me Like You from This Is What The Truth Feels Like: