It’s hard to know what to expect from a No Doubt record in 2012, and not just because of the band’s 11-year hiatus. It’s because Gwen Stefani, icon or not, has not fronted a consistent record in more than a decade. Everything great on Rock Steady (a Prince collaboration!) was jostled by duds like “Running,” which anticipated this decade’s slapdash 16-bit trend, or the overly languid “Underneath It All.” The flashes of brilliance followed Stefani to her steadily more experimental solo career, but beyond the clear standouts (the second half of Love. Angel. Music. Baby), few can agree which experiments actually worked. Was playing Tevye in “Rich Girl” inspired or forbidden Broadway? Were the “Hollaback Girl” cheerleaders badass or brats? About all that’s clear are the experiments, like racial gawking ode “Harajuku Girls,” and much of The Sweet Escape, that were just embarrassing.
"More than 25 years into their career, they’ve become iconic, and while these songs aren’t complicated or experimental anymore, they’re built to scale and scale big."
So No Doubt’s reunion wasn’t surprising at all. The Sweet Escape fizzled, the alt of the ‘90s is being revived everywhere, and more to the point, the band had been toying with a reunion for years. Selecting Diplo as point producer wasn’t surprising, either -- it felt savvy. He’s certainly one of the most exuberant guys working today -- even if said exuberance usually manifests itself in military drums and major lasers -- and has a way of remaining just shy of overexposure. And his skills aren’t too far off from the raucous big-band freakery of No Doubt’s ‘90s incarnation, on tracks like “Excuse Me Mr.” Two tracks premiered this year, and they met expectations exactly. ”Settle Down” is more a teaser (it’s the album intro), but it’s a great tease, the band rough-horsing its way through So-Cal skank. “Push and Shout,” the Diplo track, is bigger and messier -- the band’s called it its “Bohemian Rhapsody” -- but still identifiably No Doubt, with raucous, reggae-ish verses, lyrics that strive for hipness (sometimes, as in “la vida loca, we’re speeding it up like soca,” too hard) and a chorus that could hook entire stadiums. Around this time, the band gave interviews talking about the “accidents and mistakes” that were supposedly their recording process. It felt believable. From all indications, Push and Shove was shaping up to pick up where Rock Steady left off: gloriously unwieldy.
Watch the video for "Settle Down":
You’ve probably guessed by now that this didn’t happen. The singles and stomping early track and probable successor “Looking Hot” are red herrings -- Push and Shove isn’t a successor to Rock Steady but Return of Saturn, the mellowest of No Doubt’s albums. Take the very next track, “One More Summer,” which begins with slide guitars and atmospherics, as if Gwen Stefani’s now fronting the xx. The title suggests a summer jam, but that’s a bit misleading. “I’m your lover, you’re my weakness,” Stefani sings, as wistful as she’s enamored; it’s a summer love song for the heat wave years, when the season’s gone on too long and could break into fall any day. “Undone” takes about 15 seconds to become a breathless ballad that ends with an exhale. “Easy” quickly sheds its gratuitous hip-hop references (“I’m a hustler, baby,” Stefani sings, without hustle) for swirling background sighs and distant pianos; the reggae break and cut-up vocals that come in later sound like the work of another band entirely.
Not everything’s a ballad, but just about everything’s tranquil. “Gravity” is one long extended metaphor about star-crossed lovers set to cascading pianos. “Heaven” leads with the sort of eerie synths and handclaps you’d more likely find in synthpop, but the departure ends there. “Sparkle” has more pep to it, a reggae track where the percussion shudders and the brass stalks, but a few wails about wanting him to be happy and never being the same aside, its heart is another wistful chorus: “I still think of you so much -- do you remember how it was?” “Undercover” could be the sequel to Rock Steady’s paranoid, addled “Detective” (“I caught you, your hands are red /Now I’m your brokenhearted detective”), less distraught but more leery of intimacy. “I want to believe that you’re giving it all up to me/ You’re so undercover, keeping it all hushed up,” Stefani sings, but the angst is contained in the lyrics, not the straightforward chug -- call it the Hardy Boys to Rock Steady’s James Bond.
Watch the video for "Push and Shove It" featuring Busy Signal and Major Lazer:
Much has been made of Stefani’s autobiographical lyrics in the past, whether the salvos be aimed at bandmate and ex Tony Kanal or her current, sometimes-beleaguered marriage to Bush’s Gavin Rossdale, but unlike Saturn (famously inspired by her relationship with Rossdale), you’d be stretching to call any shots here. It’s a bit more compelling to argue that Push and Shove’s about Stefani settling down, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that No Doubt is. More than 25 years into their career, they’ve become iconic, and while these songs aren’t complicated or experimental anymore, they’re built to scale and scale big. What’s lost in excitement is regained in gravitas and -- finally -- consistency. And that No Doubt’s still found some room for pushing and shoving is only a bonus.
Push and Shove is out now on Interscope.