Gwen Stefani has been in the music game for more than two decades.
The last time she released a solo record was in 2006, with the mediocre "The Sweet Escape." Between then and now, Stefani, 46, has remained relevant, teaming up with No Doubt for a comeback album, becoming a judge on the incredibly popular singing competition show "The Voice" and, unfortunately remaining in the headlines for ending her 13-year relationship with Bush front man Gavin Rossdale, who allegedly cheated on the pop star with their children's nanny.
Since "The Sweet Escape," her second solo LP, the pop music landscape has dramatically changed - ten years is a long time to be out of the studio. In 2014, however, Stefani dipped her toe back into the water, releasing two new songs ("Baby Don't Lie" and "Spark the Fire"). But they didn't take off - at least not in the same way her previous singles had. The setback caused Stefani to scrap the music she was making at the time, and in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Stefani explained:
"I had just had Apollo [her youngest son], and they had just called me to do 'The Voice,'" Stefani said. "It was like, 'How am I going to nurse a baby, be a mom to two other kids, be on a new show, and write songs?' So I decided to curate a record. Everyone does that! Almost nobody writes their whole records! But it didn't feel right."
"Every time people would write things, I was like, 'That's what I sounded like 12 years ago - maybe you should call Charli XCX or somebody else," she continued. "It felt weird and fake. It wasn't meant to happen. What was [meant] to happen was this crazy, horrible stuff went down, and I was supposed to write about it. I easily could have died, and I wanted to, but something in me was like, 'I gotta turn this into music.'"
She shared similar sentiments in an interview with the New York Times: "Every song that people would write for me felt like me 12 years ago, me 10 years ago. And lyrically they could never touch my heart, ever."
Finally feeling inspired again, Stefani eventually hooked up with songwriter duo Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, who were coming off a string of hit songs they wrote for Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. Stefani says she called her team the "Truth" squad because they were able to extract her feelings, transforming them into lyrics and help her write songs that captured her emotions from her real life experiences.
"We had anger, we had sadness, we had flirtation, we had sexy, and now we're madly in love," Tranter told the Times in the same interview.
While her new record "This Is What the Truth Feels Like," which was released Friday, is emotionally and lyrically more mature, Stefani's third attempt at a solo record is a sonic mess.
It's hard to forget about Stefani's debut solo album, "Love. Angel. Music. Baby." as it remains one of the best (pop) records of the last 20 years. The strong string of hits ("What You Waiting For?", "Rich Girl," "Hollaback Girl" and "Cool") were akin to the momentum Katy Perry had in 2010 when "California Gurls," "Teenage Dream" and "Firework" ruled the airwaves. At the time, Stefani created a spectacularly cohesive and daring record that was innovative and fun. Her follow up "The Sweet Escape" offered a few successful singles but ultimately felt like a watered down "LAMB."
On "This Is What the Truth Feels Like" Stefani teams up with top hit-makers like Greg Kurstin (Sia, Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Beck), Stargate (Selena Gomez, Rihanna, Beyonce) and others, who end up failing her. Though her narrative suggests Stefani is paving her own way in the pop landscape - a very different place since she dominated with "LAMB" - her new album finds her awkwardly bending to today's trends.
"You're My Favorite" utilizes trap beats that rub against Stefani's signature pouty vocals. "Where Would I Be?" is full of recycled Stefani tropes with reggae tones mixed with a weak cheerleading stop a la "Hollaback Girl." On "Red Flag" Stefani weirdly imitates alternative singer Peaches and later on, Stefani invites "Trap Queen" singer Fetty Wap to guest on "Asking 4 It" - a flat out bad song and confusing move for Stefani. The hard-edge "Naughty," which mashes together a show tune wink with hip-hop, is dumbfounding.
Stefani picked her singles wisely, however, as they are the clear highlights on "...Truth Feels Like." "Make Me Like You" is an addictive glittering electro jam that sounds like Stefani is simply having a lot of fun in the studio. "Misery," which opens the album, is a mid-tempo banger with a snappy hook (though the metaphor used here - comparing love to drugs - needs to be banned from music writing). And even the ballad "Used to Love You" proves to be a grower and stands out on the album.
Outside the singles, there is much to be desired. Though there are some nice moments, like the sun-kissed "Truth" and "Send Me a Picture," the other cuts fade away into mediocrity. While Stefani has overcome a lot in personal life in the past 12 months, and is on the road to happiness, "...Truth Feels Like" is an unfortunate misstep.