How much artistic growth can an artist show on their first album in a decade? That question provides the primary allure of This is What the Truth Feels Like, Gwen Stefani’s comeback record after a substantive musical hiatus marred by marriage woes and a decidedly unsuccessful comeback attempt by her old band, No Doubt, back in 2012.
On the one hand, the album’s sounds and themes never stray too much from those of Stefani’s first two solo records, Love Angel Music Baby (2004) and The Sweet Escape (2006). On the other hand, the former remains one of the most consistently enjoyable pop records of the 21st century, while the latter, while less of a critical success, still produced a solid crop of hit singles, most notably its infectious title track. So if the music sounds overly familiar at times, perhaps that is not such a cause for concern.
Watch: “Make Me Like You” – Gwen Stefani
This is What the Truth Feels Like can be seen as a sequel to Love Angel Music Baby in multiple regards. Although the two records boast completely different lineups of songwriters and producers, they both have largely the same vibes and plenty of lyrical overlap — “put me out of my misery, hurry up, come save me,” Stefani sings on the upbeat opening title track, “Misery,” recalling similar lines from 2004’s “Crash,” for instance.
Much like her latest work, Love Angel Music Baby found Stefani reminiscing about her former lover (“Cool”) and musing on her feelings for her current one (“The Real Thing”). When that record came out in 2004, her fellow No Doubt member Tony Kanal and husband Gavin Rossdale filled those respective roles. A dozen years on, Rossdale is now her ex-husband and country star Blake Shelton is her new partner — but Stefani is still able to document her past and present relationships with freshness and honesty, allowing her to stick to what, all and all, has generally been a successful songwriting formula for her.
Lead single “Used to Love You” is one of her greatest displays of this strength. The song has only achieved mild success on the charts, but her unapologetic candor in addressing the former lover with whom things went south — “I was the best thing that ever happened to you. Well, now look at what you lost”— indicates that it deserves better. When she moves on to brighter current events on standout tracks like “Rare,” she speaks for us listeners by declaring: “You’re rare… and I’m loving every second of it.”
I don’t know why I cry
But I think it’s cause I remembered for the first time
Since I hated you
That I used to love you
Watch: “Used to Love You” – Gwen Stefani
Well, almost. This Is What the Truth Feels Like loses a bit of momentum in places, as Stefani’s thematic material starts feeling too repetitive, and a few of her “raps” on songs like “Red Flag” and “Naughty” come off as somewhat awkward. None of the songs here attempt to replicate the sound of “Hollaback Girl,” far and away her most massive single to this day, but there are still some shots at getting the crowd going which were more effective when the singer was 34, rather than 47 come October.
Nonetheless, Stefani has always looked and sounded younger than her years, and she uses this quality to maintain the role of “pop star” which is more typically reserved for singers 20-odd years her junior. On songs like “Truth,” the song from which the album’s title is derived, and “Make Me Like You,” it is clear that her head-bobbing powers are still as potent as ever. “Asking 4 It,” the record’s lone duet, further demonstrates Stefani’s great capability in performing alongside guest hip-hop stars, as Fetty Wap serves up a solid appearance.
In closing, the answer to that initial question stands as such: This Is What the Truth Feels Like is not really a showcase for Stefani’s massive artistic development, inasmuch as nothing here is radically different from her previous material. Instead, the singer does her best at tapping into the proven merits of her past work, which lie primarily in her great singing voice and her ability to forge promising pop music out of her relationship tales. While the results here are not always consistent or adventurous, there is still enough fun and energy here to make it an enjoyable listening experience, and to be thankful that Stefani finally took the initiative to emerge with her long-overdue third LP.