When a band waits more than four years to release an album, expectations skyrocket. Fans and critics demand the impossible, looking for the band to maintain the sound that made it popular while simultaneously injecting groundbreaking elements that would justify the wait. Miraculously, some groups are able to pull off this implausible task, as No Doubt proves with its astounding follow-up to Tragic Kingdom. The group focuses on its catchy hooks and singer Gwen Stefani’s insightful and deeply personal lyrics while ushering out its experimentation with ska, disco, and funk, resulting in an irresistible new-wave album that brings to mind Missing Persons, The Psychedelic Furs, Elvis Costello, and Let’s Dance-era David Bowie.

Stefani, who recently turned 30, bares her insecurities with songs about mortality, marriage, and makeup. On “Staring Problem,” Stefani looks at a “cute girl” and seethes, singing What’s it like to have that body? I’m gawking while I wonder. Striving to be real is a recurrent theme for Stefani, as she asks Can you tell I’m faking it? on “Magic’s in the Makeup,” then admits I’m faking I love yous/ You’re forcing me to at the conclusion of the hook-filled “Artificial Sweetener.” However, as on Tragic Kingdom, Stefani’s finest moment comes with her caustic take on a relationship gone wrong. On “Ex-Girlfriend,” she ranges from speaking during the subdued verses to belting out the infectious chorus before the song arrives at low-key closure as she pouts I’m just another ex-girlfriend on your list/But I should have thought of that before we kissed.

Throughout the album, Adrian Young’s drumbeats are explosive, while studio chum Gabrial McNair adds all the synthesized touches necessary to ensure genuine new wave flavor. Guitarist Tom Dumont achieves soft/loud dynamics without the usual stepping-on-and-off-the-pedals monotony, using subtle variations in tone on songs such as the stark but beautiful “Too Late,” and Tony Kanal’s inventive bass lines provide the bouncy backdrop for tunes such as “Bathwater” and “Comforting Lie.” Stefani has added several new shades to her vocal arsenal, allowing her to coo convincingly through the ballads before belting out the upbeat numbers with previously untapped power. It would be ideal if No Doubt could release masterpieces such as Return of Saturn on an annual basis, but given that this is obviously not the case, at least this stellar album suggests that fans will be well rewarded for their patience.

Categories: Music