Let's make one thing clear: Gwen Stefani still has it. Gwen Stefani will always have it. But in the 11 (!) years since "Rock Steady" was released, No Doubt may have decided to lean too much on what's going to make them commercially successful and less on what's innovative and edgy.
It's tough to talk about any No Doubt release without evoking their roots. The band's 1995 breakout "Tragic Kingdom" was a watershed album. I was the furthest thing from cool as a fifth-grader, but screaming along to "Just a Girl," "Spiderwebs" and "Don't Speak" was one of my first glimpses of an outside world where it was OK to be yourself. It was a work of art both heady and comforting.
Five years later I wasn't as drawn to the group’s follow-up, "Return of Saturn," but I revisited it for this review, and holy cow. "Simple Kind of Life" is absolutely shattering. If you haven't listened to it since you were 15, you haven't really heard it.
"Push and Shove" can't approach that kind of emotional response. Instead, it's mostly bouncy, ska-tinged fun. The title track especially sounds like the band I know and love, starting off fast and thumping, transitioning into a great, slower vocal layer, then rolling in Major Lazer and the horns. It's a top-down, summer cruising adventure.
On the flip side, "One More Summer" looks to be the album's lower-key song of longing; there's just a little too much energy in the beachy backing guitars. "Undone" serves the same purpose more effectively, as Gwen laments, "This time I need you, nothin's feeling right. Oh I'm in trouble, help me, no one needs you more than me."
Knowing that she's happily married with two kids and a booming personal brand, it's tougher to identify with 2012 Gwen's struggles. There's something just a little too slick and produced about her emotions these days.
Maybe that's the biggest catch-22 of No Doubt's success: More fans enjoy their work, but there's even greater pressure to produce widely appealing content. That great "Tragic Kingdom" connection isn't lost, but the layer of commercialization that sits on top is tough to ignore.
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