In a recent interview with Carson Daly, Gwen Stefani went into details of her new album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like, and the divorce that largely spawned its contents. “I called us the Breakfast Club,” she said, describing her writing team. “The moment I walked into the studio, I was like, ‘Listen, I don’t care about anything. I don’t care about hits … All I want to do is just say the truth.’” While that was likely a really cathartic, uplifting experience for her (much like watching The Breakfast Club as a teenager), the negative of that experience is translated to the listener. She didn’t care about hits, so there really aren’t any. While the album unapologetically presents Stefani in this moment, right now she’s bouncing aggressively between sneering at the guy who broke her and adoring the guy who built her back up, as if unsure which half she should let dominate her brain.
Normally, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Anybody going through a breakup as significant — not to mention public — as Stefani will undoubtedly have a torrential mix of emotions to work out. They’ll also likely want to do so forcefully to insist on their validity, to accentuate each emotional angle to the nth degree. Stefani certainly does that, though the uneven framework and skewed proportions carry little of the passionate energy that the emotions deserve.
It’s also true that Stefani has always been a bit mercurial in her pop appeal, able to play to a hundred different types and still shine at the core. From “Just a Girl” to “Hollaback Girl”, ska to Harajuku Lovers, she’s presented accessible, fun versions of niche styles — though some more thrilling than others. This Is What the Truth Feels Like lacks a cohesive style, instead focusing on narrative. There’s a reason that some of the first pieces reviewing the album came from celebrity magazines, rather than music publications. More than ever before, she herself has become the story rather than the music. All the plot, players, and scenes were known before a second of music dropped.
At its start, This Is What the Truth Feels Like presents a lot of potential, particularly that Stefani may have tapped into a sugary blend of her two powerful emotions. While “Misery” lacks an identifiable tone or feeling, the cooing, burbling pop glaze is effortless. “You’re like drugs to me,” she says to her new post-breakup beau. “Hurry up, come see me/ Pull me out of my misery.” She acknowledges the pain and the pleasure at once, while elsewhere she too often sticks to either one or the other. “Used to Love” finds another type of blend, this time in past and present, love and hate. “I don’t know why I cry/ But I think it’s because I remembered for the first time/ Since I hated you that I used to love you,” she floats, a recognizable moment in heartbreak delivered in a charming falsetto burble.
“You’re My Favorite” gets closer to an identifiable style with its Super Mario 64 cave synths and tinny, trap-adjacent percussion, but takes a step away from resonant emotionality. Stefani, in a Madonna-esque spit, describes all the things she’s done in a rapid set of cliches — she’s been there and done that. But when she gets to the thing that breaks those cliches, it’s an uplifting pop moment. “You’re my favorite,” she smiles, and you can feel the light shining through her body. The Snapchat-indebted “Send me a Picture” rides on a dime-store Timbaland beat, though the polyrhythm and sandy synths fade quickly from memory.
The other heart-eyed tracks stick to a bland warmth, which while inoffensive, won’t win anyone over. “Make Me Like You” feels a lot like “Lovefool”, which is as much compliment as it is complaint. The level to which she heaps praise on her new love interest in “Truth” is about as cloying as it gets (“Thank you for saving me, I can’t believe it/ Thank you”), but it sounds to be coming from a genuine place.
The eye-roll moments come when Stefani tries to channel genuine rage, spite, and frustration through bubblegum pop. “Red Flags” leaches slowly into one of the few chant-y moments that made “solo Gwen” such a bananas phenomenon. But, her sarcastic “Woah, check it out/ Look at you, big boy” intro doesn’t sound as tough as its intended. The abysmal “Naughty” takes this one step further. A jumble of Christina Aguilera vocal growls, piano swagger, Radiohead references (“Karma police, I’m on patrol”), and a finger-wagging cheerleader chant, the song is a through-and-through cringe that probably feels great to have off her shoulders. There’s no denying it spits venom, but the venom isn’t interesting or any fun to listen to. “You’ve been naughty/ Uh, uh, uh,” she repeats in a smile-sneer lilt — and if you’re just reading this and wondering how the second half of that lyric is meant to be heard, picture the Wayne Knight pop-up in Jurassic Park, with none of the charm.
Becoming a mega-personality through The Voice necessitates a change in the way Gwen Stefani’s music comes across. Though she insists that she wasn’t out to make hits, the lack of a strong angle makes it feel like it was designed for mass audiences. And if this was her way of exorcising some demons, we can forgive the failed stabs at vitriol and wait for the next sunny pop jams. Gwen Stefani needed to move on to something new, and after this record, so will her fans.
Essential Tracks: “Misery”, “Used to Love”