“I don’t really want to embarrass myself / No one's gonna believe me, not even myself,” Gwen Stefani sings on her new song “Truth.” “They’re all gonna say I’m rebounding / So rebound all over me.” If you’ve glanced at your local supermarket’s tabloid selection lately, you might have some idea of Stefani’s personal life, or at least the recent highlights (divorce, new high-profile romance with Blake Shelton). “Truth” – the centerpiece of her third solo record, This Is What the Truth Feels Like – plays like a confrontation with that very public commentary. But it also sounds as if Stefani is speaking directly to herself.
A full decade has passed since Stefani's last solo album, 2006's platinum-selling The Sweet Escape; her musical career has lacked direction for much of that time, especially after a last-ditch effort at reviving No Doubt with 2012's Push and Shove fizzled. She's collaborated with Maroon 5 and Calvin Harris, earned a spot as a judge on The Voice, and released a few hollow singles. It wasn’t until a stunning live performance of her new song “Used to Love You” began making the rounds on the Web that it became clear: Gwen Stefani was, ostensibly, about to get real with us. This Is What the Truth Feels Like puts to bed the ultra-produced pop bubblegum that has long marked her solo career, instead serving up uncomplicated songs that rip material directly from her life – a refreshing directness that Stefani hasn't given us since No Doubt's peak.
Stefani spends the album zig-zagging between two distinct emotional and musical zones; she’s revivified by desire, and often uses shopworn mixed metaphors to describe it. On the electro-pop opener, “Misery,” she begs, breathlessly, “Don’t sell this feeling at the grocery store / Oh, 'cause your love it tastes like drugs to me.” The lite dancehall throwback “Where Would I Be” is a treat for those who still have No Doubt's “Underneath It All” in rotation, wherein Stefani demands “I want a shot of your vitamin, fill up my soul.” “Make Me Like You,” with its upbeat bass line and fried guitars, is a disco song in the vein of Kylie Minogue’s Fever and The Cardigans’ Life. The track is a retro sugar-rush that suits Stefani well; it’s a lacy-edged valentine fitted with gooey oohs and aahs.” The album certainly could have benefitted from more songs like “Make Me Like You,” which is fun but not insubstantial.
These more bubbly pop songs, focusing as much on Stefani’s wounds as they do her excitement, stand in contrast to the other half of the album – which is filled with dated hip-hop production and songs that tend toward silly seduction or mean-mugging fight songs. On the most confusing track, “Red Flags,” which is seemingly directed at an ex, Stefani raps angrily over a cheerleader-stomp beat that’s a pale echo of the one on “Hollaback Girl”; she yells, “This is your punishment!” and sounds like she’s sobbing. “Naughty” feels more like a tepid strip-tease than an earnest come-on. On “Asking for It,” Fetty Wap zooms in for a vague blip of a verse, the album's moment of rap credibility; Stefani counters repeatedly, “Are you sure you wanna love me?” over trap beats. It’s hard to tell how self-aware Stefani is on these songs, as she figures out whether grown-Gwen's pop priorities have evolved since Tragic Kingdom, way back when.
Gwen Stefani's talent merits a large-scale career revamp, but this album lacks that comeback punch. And even though she worked with two of this year's highest-profile industry songwriters – Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself” fame – there aren’t any big, booming, catchy hits on here. She raps, she sings about wanting nudes, she unabashedly includes three different songs in which she compares her lover to drugs. Stefani, her signature voice unchanged since 1995, could have made a tight, contemporary pop album that caters to all the current chart-topping trends – and yet she didn’t. Instead, in its place is a wobbly Jenga tower of a record, one that wants to be as goofy as it is somber, and ends up feeling distinctly as though it's not meant for us at all.