revisiting a bad album from an artist I used to love
The thing to know about Gwen’s solo career is that it wasn’t really supposed to happen. The No Doubt frontwoman and my personal hero in middle school had been being asked to guest on a few tracks in other genres, like Moby’s “Southside” and Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” While No Doubt was on hiatus, Gwen started dabbling in a side project that would potentially be an album of collaborations. Somewhere in the process, that morphed into her solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby, a project so underprioritized she just repurposed the name of her clothing line for its title.
Now, I can’t really be objective about this album, because it came out when I was 13 and music you love at that age hooks into your brain like a parasite. I watched the “What You Waiting For?” video obsessively when it first came out, months before the album was released, and perhaps the most dramatic moment in my middle school years came during that time. One day before P.E., my friend overheard my frenemy say in the locker room that “Allison is always talking about Gwen Stefani and nobody even likes Gwen Stefani,” which I of course confronted her about and told her not to talk to me anymore. But when “Hollaback Girl” came out months later and everyone was raving in music class about it, guess who turned around and asked me to borrow the CD so she could burn a copy? That’s right, that very same fake bitch. I was right all along! Love. Angel. Music. Baby RULES!! Wait, sorry, I got carried away with that memory, I do not stand by that statement.
As an adult who’s trying to maintain some credibility, I will say that Love. Angel. Music. Baby is….not bad. There are some good songs on there. The production is incredible across the board and it’s just plain weird in ways that are really refreshing, although also in ways that are extremely racist.
And then she got confident, and we got a second solo album from her. The thing about that one, The Sweet Escape, is that it was supposed to happen even less. She could have retired before the general public knew what cultural appropriation was! And yet she put out a second album, mostly made of B-sides that weren’t good enough to make the cut for the first one and new songs with lyrics like “Don’t know what I’m doin’ back in the studio” and “Sophomore — only one solo, I swore.” She didn’t even want this to happen! It was The Sweet Escape that first made me confront an uncomfortable truth: my idol was slipping. I was 15. Gwen was rapping. I felt betrayed.
Ten years later, I was having the worst year of my life, at home, unemployed, recovering from an injury. It was 2016 and the world was on fire. And to make matters worse, Gwen Stefani had a new solo album coming out. Now older and wiser, I knew enough to be filled with dread, but I dutifully listened to This is What the Truth Feels Like anyway.
Of all the Gwen solo albums that couldn’t have happened, this one couldn’t have happened the most. Gwen’s solo career was mostly dead until she found renewed fame as a coach on The Voice. And then her marriage to serial cheater Gavin Rossdale fell apart and she rushed out This is What the Truth Feels Like.
I wrote this post back when Selena Gomez’s album Rare came out. I kept seeing the title and thinking of the closing track of that misguided Gwen album. “That song wasn’t bad,” I thought, “I should revisit it.” I revisited it, and learned anew that that song was, in fact, bad. Like most songs on This is What the Truth Feels Like, it has a nice hook and is otherwise trash.
This is a trash album, and I’m a grown-up and can say that now. I haven’t quite killed my darling — I’m obviously a No Doubt stan, and I still find her old style reflected in every piece of clothing I’m drawn to — but I know a dud when I see it. The truth, here, feels like listening to someone who ran out of ideas a long time ago.
She almost had me. This song is the strongest on the album, produced by Mattman & Robin, the Swedish wizards responsible for the strongest songs on Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION and other earworms like “Cake by the Ocean” and Janelle Monae’s “Make Me Feel.” But it’s Gwen’s lyrics that get me, because she is, at heart, a dramatic bitch and I relate to that. The chorus of this song compares asking her love to come see her to begging for death, which is exactly how I feel when deprived of attention for any length of time.
Do I love Gwen Stefani because I was always destined to be a high-drama bitch or am I a high-drama bitch because I was exposed to Gwen Stefani from such a young age? Unclear, but it’s more fun to ponder that question that the ones raised in the verses, like why Gwen thought “don’t sell this feeling at the grocery store” was an apt metaphor for a feeling she otherwise describes as “like drugs,” something she “suffers” in “misery” without. This song also has a weak-ass bridge, with Gwen crooning “You’re in so much trouble.” It’s fine but not great.
“You’re My Favorite”
Ooof, this album goes off the rails quickly. This one has some weird bloopy production that’s enjoyable — probably because Gwen’s biggest hits have come with production from the Neptunes. The central problem with this album is that listening to it means hearing a woman describe having sex with Blake Shelton, which is upsetting, and that woman is Gwen Stefani, which makes things more upsetting, because Gwen is an artist who in her prime sang “I’m antsy / bubble pop electric pansies” to say she was horny. She’s a weirdo, is the thing, and that’s fine — good even! — when it’s 2004 and you’re dueting with a ’50s-style Andre 3000 alter ego. But here, as an adult coach on The Voice singing about another coach on The Voice, Gwen says that she’s “been there, done that, buyed it, tried it / More than I can count / Shook it, stirred it, broke it, smoked it / More than I can count” before concluding that Blake Shelton is her favorite out of everything. First of all, gross, but second of all, whom or what has she been breaking and smoking? The fact that the opening line of this song is “I’m pretty simple, but I have explored” makes this feel even ickier to me, like this is something she can tell a lover but that I shouldn’t be privy to. And if that last bridge was whack, this one’s worse, with Gwen tenderly crooning, “Mama, can I keep him? / I promise I’ll take care of him.” Yuck! Stop it! At this point in the listening process, my jaw settles into a grimace that will remain for the rest of the album.
“Where Would I Be?”
The production is great on this one too. I think Gwen has a good ear for production. Some pop stars don’t!
Okay, that’s the only nice thing I have to say about this song. It’s just a jumble of mixed metaphors like “I need a shot of your vitamin / fill up my Solo cup when I’m feeling so lonely… I need some water so water me” until we get to a blatant ripoff of her own song “Hollaback Girl.” She launches into a cheerleader chant that’s somehow ten million times more awkward, probably because half of it is filler lyrics she never rewrote: “Yeah, you’re putting in overtime / I scored, you are the prize / What? Uh-uh /
What, what? Uh-uh.”
“Make Me Like You”
This song is good. Sorry! I simply must call it as I see it. Mattman & Robin are back on production here and the vibe is definitely EMOTION-esque. It’s just a bubbly, happy pop song, and for once she doesn’t whiff it on the bridge — her earnest “Oh God! Thank God that I found you” is genuinely really lovely. (“You’re on me like jewelry” is a terrible lyric, but that’s fine, it’s fine. We will take what we can GET.)
I must point out that its $12 million music video is one of the most expensive ones ever made, which is absolutely batshit because literally no one in the world noticed or cared. No one cared! That was not money well spent. I could name 15 more iconic Gwen Stefani videos in my sleep.
Daaaamn, Mattman & Robin, back at it again with the solid production! I’m not fully sure what happened in the actual writing sessions for these songs, though, because this is one of many songs on this album where it seems like Gwen awkwardly tried to fit pre-written lyrics to a beat that doesn’t fit them, like the contorted way she tries to get out “And I know we said we’re gonna live in the mo-o-ment” or “Woah, it’s so strange, conf-u-sing, and I’m so - scared.” The whole thing is way clunkier than “Make Me Like You.”
Gwen paints some upsetting word pictures yet again, such as the hideous commandment “They’re all gonna say I’m rebounding / So rebound all over me.” She also calls Blake Shelton “boy” a lot on this album, which is absurd, because Blake Shelton is a giant hunk of cornbread of a man, a big scruffy Midwestern slab.
“Used to Love You”
Ah, fuck this song. Fuck it and fuck its sad one-shot close-up video that is certainly no “Nothing Compares 2U” or “Cold War” or even fucking “Wrecking Ball,” with Gwen straining so hard to turn on some acting skills that you assume director Sophie Muller is behind the camera holding a gun. And especially fuck every dumb article that said it was “the new ‘Don’t Speak.’” You tell me what the better opening to a song is!
“You and me, we used to be together / Every day together, always / I really feel that I'm losing my best friend / I can’t believe this could be the end / It looks as though you’re letting go / And if it’s real, well, I don’t want to know
Never thought this would happen / Gotta let it sink in, you’re gone / Don't know, know what I’m feeling / I must be dreaming, you’re gone”
It’s almost like one is a stone-cold classic and the other is a first draft that offers nothing original to the genre. YOU WOULD THINK THAT I WOULD LIKE THIS OF ALL SONGS, CONSIDERING HOW MUCH I CAN RELATE TO LOVING SOMEONE VERY MUCH UNTIL THEY DISAPPOINT YOU, LEAVING YOU WITH ONLY MEMORIES OF THE GOOD TIMES BEFORE THEIR ALBUMS GOT TERRIBLE!
“Send Me a Picture”
Did you want a song about sexting Blake Shelton? Did you? Well, the universe hates you and so does Gwen Stefani. If you thought David Bowie and Prince dying were the worst things to happen in 2016, you need to also realize that Gwen Stefani released a song about asking Oklahoma dumbfuck Blake Shelton for nudes. I shudder when I hear her singing “I wanna see you right now with no filter” like a teen on Snapchat. If you want a Gwen song about long-distance lust, just listen to her song about phone sex from Rock Steady! And if you want a dramatic sexy song about waiting for someone, that same album has “Waiting Room” on it. And that’s sexy. You know why? Because Prince produced it. Okay, I take back what I said about this song being worse than losing Prince.
BAD! BAD! BAD! This song opens up with Gwen yelling “Whoa! Check it out! Look at you! Big boy!” and it just gets more nightmarish from there. I guess it’s about red flags in her relationship with Gavin, but tbh I never noticed because I was so distracted by her “rapping” voice.
This song is so embarrassing I want to claw my face off when I hear it. And on top of that, the chorus has the phrase “red flags cry” for some reason? Instead of “red flags fly?” This song is proof that hell is real.
“Asking 4 It” featuring Fetty Wap
Yeah, you read that right! “Featuring Fetty Wap!” Gwen’s first solo album featured a guest verse from Eve and two duets with none other than André 3000, and here she’s sunk to collaborating with the “Trap Queen” guy for relevance.
Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels were the co-writers on this song. They’re responsible for a lot of good pop hits, like Bieber’s “Sorry” and Selena Gomez’s “Look At Her Now” and also songs that weren’t just about Beiber and Selena Gomez breaking up. But this doesn’t work at all.
Every time you think that this album has hit rock bottom, you find out that there’s more horrors in store. “Naughty” has an old-school piano line and theatrical style that could work as well as old No Doubt stuff like “Bathwater.” But oooooh boy, are the lyrics not there. This song starts with the lyric “I see you hide behind your glasses, see you love the shade / Shady so long that Mister Shady is your name.”
It’s clearly about Gavin cheating on her and yet it’s written in a weird sexual tone, breathily chiding “You’ve been naughty!,” because this song was not thought through very much!
“Me Without You”
It’s a ballad. It’s pretty boring. This album is very sonically cohesive, which is to say the production sounds the same all over and it gets repetitive. As with other songs here, the chorus feels half-written, devolving into ad-libs and repetition halfway through. I think all these songs were written in a rush of emotion but not cleaned up at all.
This damn hook. It’s really good! The lyrics aren’t very strong, the bridge is undercooked, but the happy love songs are the highlight of the album for sure. This could have been a nice little Valentine’s EP, with “Misery,” “Make Me Like You,” “Rare,” and a couple of the other tolerable songs.
I wasn’t sure if anyone would like this essay, but the world is going to hell now and so I’m publishing it because maybe a deep dive on something inconsequential is what you need to focus on. I’m very sorry to the Shefani shippers who subscribed after my Return of Saturn piece. I’m an elderly Gwen fan, and our perspective on her later albums and current romance is different. I’d still fight a bitch in P.E. for her.