By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
For the follow-up to a multi-platinum album, The Sweet Escape sure comes with a lot of hesitation. Gwen Stefani still pulls off the 14-going-on-40 bit with more energy than an actual teenager. She's still unusually concerned with her shit and what level of craziness it's attained. (FYI, the answer she's looking for is "most craziest.") And the triumphant fanfare of appropriated Rogers and Hammerstein orchestra and Neptunes bass wobble in the leadoff single, "Wind It Up," is, in truth, some wonderfully crazy shit. But that doesn't stop Stefani from admitting two tracks later, "Don't know what I'm doing back in the studio."
It's not the family/career balancing act that's fazed Stefani, though maybe it should be. She and her Bush-boy Gavin had their first child in May, an event which leaves most new parents with little time for recording and promoting blockbuster albums. But that's not what's on her mind. It's the bitter fans of her '90s work who are the crybabies, complaining about their lady's shiny new image and insisting that ska pop requires a certain level of sincerity that chart-topping pop doesn't. (I'll buy that the day a Goldfinger song gets me all misty.) While seasoned pros like Madonna have learned to give the finger while hanging from the cross, Stefani hasn't quite evolved past "Just a Girl." You'd think the newly acquired haters that a radio superstar is destined to have might've toughened her up, but no.
She's still the sensitive, emotionally honest gal who's laced many a song with a commitment-phobic boyfriend or a past relationship that seems to never, ever get dropped. (In case you were wondering, she and Tony Kanal are still such good friends that he produced a few tracks on TSE.) Since she can't leave well enough alone and just write a fun, disposable pop album, Stefani makes like a girl campaigning for prom queen, packing her songs with explanations and good intentions.
With its refs to Disneyland and shopping mall-makeup counters, "Orange County Girl" reminds angry No Doubt fans that Anaheim will never be the 'hood, and Stefani's street cred is just an act. (The same can be deduced from her rapping, which more often sounds like robotic electroclash than a natural hip-hop flow.) The Gwenny-from-the-block track explains radio fame as something that just happened to her. Likewise, if Pharrell calls you up offering a new beat, who are you to say "no, thanks"? Later, over the stripped-down club bump of "Yummy," she shrugs "Only one record/I swore," then gives in to all of those people who want her to do another. It's obviously not her fault.
When she isn't coming up with excuses for the unforgivable act of writing new songs, she's apologizing for the felt-like-forever two-year hiatus since the release of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Of her downtime, she says, "I know you've been waiting, but I've been off making babies/And like a chef making donuts and pastries/It's time to make you sweat." Questionable baking logic aside, the woman needs to stop blaming others and own up to her workaholism.
Among the songs that don't deal so intensely with career drama, a few relax just enough to actually be fun. The title track rises above Stefani's crude staccato delivery with Akon's wild howling and an appropriately sweet horn-lined chorus. Even better is "Early Winter," a pristine ballad gracefully sung over a plush bed of keyboards and piano, courtesy of Keane's Tim Rice-Oxley. And the Orange County girl who earlier in the album admitted to "makin' out to Purple Rain just like everybody else" rips off "Little Red Corvette" so fearlessly in the verses of "U Started It" that I couldn't help but smile at a back-up singer's shuddering, Prince-like melismas.
On the other end of the spectrum is "Don't Get It Twisted," which pairs that line about "the most craziest shit ever" with the melody from "Thunder and Blazes" (you know, circus music), tipping the scales from crazy to just sort of dopey. Should the song become a single and the Harajuku Girls find themselves in greasepaint and floppy shoes, someone contact the ASPCA. But when it comes to the cringe-factor, nothing beats "Breakin' Up," a Neptunes electro-bore that uses poor cell phone reception as a metaphor for a failing relationship. We citizens of the aught years have a duty to tell future generations that no, it really didn't seem like a better idea at the time. (File it right next to Britney's "Email My Heart.")
Given Stefani's many shout-outs to Pharrell Williams, you'd think she'd end up with some better beats, but "Wind It Up" aside, TSE's production falls flat. Nellee Hooper (who knew he was still around?) provides two pleasant but largely unremarkable tracks, while Swizz Beats seems to be on autopilot for his contribution. Still, the kids came for Gwen and a detailed account of Gwen's (in)decision about making a record is what they'll get.
From her big-budget videos and highly choreographed television appearances, it looks like Stefani has no problem playing the preening solo artist. She hawks her clothing line with ease and plays an excellent foil to Fergie. But someone needs to convince her that it's okay to make albums—and that albums for the general populace shouldn't sound so desperate for acceptance. If you want to communicate with the people who really love you, that's what blogs are for.