Return of Saturn
This week Gwen Stefani and No Doubt return
with their first release in five years with an album that not only offers a listen
as rewarding as their breakthrough disc Tragic Kingdom, it actually goes
a step beyond to improve on the band's savvy cross-genre pop sound.
Thematically, Return of Saturn looks at personal insecurity and often, Stefani sounds as if she's yearning to cocoon with the right guy. "Why do the good girls always wants the bad boys?" she asks in several different ways on the band's overdue third studio album for Interscope.
After bemoaning the fact that she's now just another "Ex-Girlfriend" on someone's list, Stefani goes on to sing that all she really wants is a "Simple Kind of Life" with a man whose "Bathwater" she's happy to wash in (She's also willing to share his toothbrush. Any takers?). She then sings about "something borrowed, something blue" as she wonders who the man will be who will "Marry Me."
In between the yearning for a homey life with the ever-elusive Mr. Right, Stefani also seems to be wrestling with an identity crisis — she confesses that she's filled with "Artificial Sweetener" and takes a couple shots at the shallowness of the "looks" game.
In "Magic's In The Makeup" she yearns for the "real" body that the makeup imitates and in "Staring Problem," (the one song to feature a co-writing credit from Gwen's brother, former ND member and founder Eric Stefani) she sings of girl-girl jealousy ("My eyes are so ruthless/they wander and I follow/I keep staring, I can't stop it ... I'm such a cute girl/I'm so jealous/I wish I looked exactly like her/what's it like to have that body?")
Maybe all this restless yearning is a reaction to the phenomenal success of the band's second major label disc, 1995's breakthrough Tragic Kingdom, which vaulted the band from selling in the thousands of copies with their 1992 Interscope debut (and a self-released collection called Beacon Street Session) to the millions.
That disc also paved the way for other ska-based bands with girls at the mic to take their chart shots (Save Ferris, Dance Hall Crashers) and helped lend visibility to some of the genre's other longtime purveyors (Mighty Mighty Bosstones). As Tragic Kingdom rode the radio waves in 1996-97, Stefani vaulted from punky overall-clad bar band singer to Madonna-esque Spin cover girl (not without causing some band friction at the singular nature of that attention).
Non-stop touring, photo shoots and interviews no doubt took their toll on No Doubt, but a listen to Return of Saturn shows that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger — the trials of fame have only served to tighten the band's attack.
No Doubt could have followed up the astounding success of 1995's breakthrough Tragic Kingdom album by trying to carbon copy a handful of ballads like "Don't Speak" peppered with some punchy rockers like "Spiderwebs" and "Just a Girl." There's a lot riding on this CD for the band (especially since they've been MIA for so long) but thankfully, Return of Saturn casts its web farther and deeper than looking for Top 40 retreads.
If anything, Return is a little more focused and a tad less processed pop than its predecessor. There are certainly familiar touchstones — the harmonies and ska bass and keyboard influences remain, as do Stefani's trademark Missing Persons-meets-Aimee Mann warbling pipes. "Ex-Girlfriend" and "Comforting Lie" provide the punchy power and "Simple Kind of Life" and "Suspension Without Suspense" the heart. The ska horns that early on were once the band's calling card now only turn up sporadically, but in their place is a heavier, more modern sounding guitar attack.
And while the music base of No Doubt is certainly not the "Gwen Stefani Show" — she can't take credit for the tough-as-nails rhythm section or New Wave-meets ska-punk guitar slides — it's hard to write about Return of Saturn without sounding that way; she is the wordsmith and the voice, and this album is filled with deeply personal lyrics. While these songs don't wallow in the emotionally extreme troughs of Tori Amos or Fiona Apple, they still deal with the very real feelings and problems of 20 and 30something women; namely the conflict between wanting a traditional life while living in an increasingly untraditional world.
Stefani's delicate vocal and aching lyrics to "Simple Kind of Life" are the best celebration of normality I've heard in a pop song in years:
"All I wanted was a simple thing
a simple kind of life
all I needed was a simple man so I could be a wife ...
you seem like you'd be a good dad."
The album ends with a beautifully arranged instrumental orchestral version of this song, which should soon join "Ex-Girlfriend" on the pop charts.
While five years is an eternity to be away from the pop charts, Saturn should be a welcome radio return. It's also a strong guarantee that none of the members of No Doubt will be enjoying a quiet, simple kind of life for the next year or more.