To the (few) remaining No Doubt fans who hopped on board because of the band’s early ties to So-Cal punk and ska, those who vastly prefer the band’s rock side and wished they indulged less in the pop world: You can definitely skip this one. You not only won’t like it, you’ll probably find it to be utterly indigestible.
To everyone else — people who appreciated that No Doubt were a more innovative band than they were given credit for, people who don’t think pop and art are necessarily polar opposites, and people who understood and even appreciated No Doubt’s integration of ragga and hip-hop into Rock Steady, then hang on, because this is a flat-out amazing ride.
If No Doubt’s 2003 greatest hits album - released almost exactly a year ago - played like one of the best one-disc career summations from the new wave period, wrapping up a string of memorable and sometimes idiosyncratic pop singles in the way that discs from The Cars, Blondie, Madness, or The Police did, then Gwen Stefani’s solo debut Love.Angel.Music.Baby. sounds like a fictitious No Doubt’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, picking up where the last one left off and carrying the singer through a dizzying array of styles that sound distinctly more late ’80s than early. It’s a platter of club-friendly bubblegum, a dozen songs all built around massive pop hooks and punctuated with gurgling synths, orchestra hits and thumping beats. Anyone expecting a confessional, singer-songwriter album out of Stefani, an entire disc of “Don’t Speak”s, will have to wait a long while.
This album is more distinctly “pop” than any No Doubt album, but it also makes some major artistic reaches, especially in its attempt to meld the best of current Top 40 hip-hop with charging, synth-driven late ’80s pop and then layering the package with distinct references to modern Japanese pop culture. It’s damn weird for an album that sounds so distinctly Top 40; and several writing collaborations with Linda Perry (that former 4 Non Blondes singer, again) underscore that the closest comparison is to Pink’s 2001 genre-buster M!ssundaztood, though Gwen is less angry (and frankly, lyrically adept) but more musically adventurous.
One key to understanding this record is this: Gwen Stefani isn’t just a fan of ’80s new wave and mainstream pop. She’s a student of the stuff, aware of every nuance of what made the best songs walk the line between fluff and substance. Those who are more than passingly aware of the pop music of the period — and this applies not just to the hip reference points of today but also less cool acts like Fleetwood Mac or semi-forgotten hip-hop like Salt ‘N Pepa and Neneh Cherry — will find Love.Angel.Music.Baby to be a thrillingly rich text, rife with details and references that the people who are “in” on them will greatly appreciate.
The album begins with the first single, “What You Waiting For?”, which opens rather awkwardly with audience noise and a slow, contemplative piano ballad — perhaps Gwen teasing us with a reference to the “confessional solo album” — that lasts for all of 20 seconds before launching into a thudding club beat that’s undercut by a tough, sturdy guitar riff that props up the choruses. “What You Waiting For?” sets the tone for the album, not just in the jarring tempo change 20 seconds in, but also for the ridiculously dumb refrain “Take a chance you stupid ho” that repeats over the outro. This is so frivolous and stupid that it winds up being brilliant; it pretends to be nothing more than party bubblegum and achieves its artistic criteria beautifully. It’s a strong single, although compared with much of the rest of the album — where almost EVERY song sounds made-for-radio — you kind of wonder why something else wasn’t chosen.
“Rich Girl”, which features Eve (whose 2001 collaboration with Stefani, “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”, also informs a good deal of the disc) rips the Fiddler On the Roof classic showtune and turns it into an anthem of urban bling-lust, replete with a great Dr. Dre-produced backing track (amazingly, one simple pounding piano chord makes for great percussive backing). It’s followed by the bizarre “Hollaback Girl”, which, despite being produced by The Neptunes, sounds almost exactly like Dizzee Rascal, which perhaps recognizes that The Neptunes are no longer the most innovative producers in modern hip-hop. Lyrically, this is where Gwen sinks the lowest here, especially on a breakdown where she repeats “This shit is bananas/ B-A-N-A-N-A-S!” several times. It’s such a ridiculously stupid song laid over an adventurous Timbaland-like beat that it winds up being tons of fun, but it’s the point where an awful lot of No Doubt fans might start getting worried.
Cue “Cool”, a slippery slice of keyboard driven new wave pop that easily could’ve slotted into any No Doubt album. Not only do the lyrics immediately insure it will be sung along to by lonely 16-year-olds (“It’s good to see you now with someone else/ And it’s such a miracle that you and me are still good friends/ After all that we’ve been through/ I know we’re cool”), but this is one of the moments where Stefani drops in some huge ’80s references. The cut sounds pitched halfway between The Go-Gos and Cyndi Lauper, but after each chorus there’s a string of “Uh-Oh-Uh-Uh-Oh” backing vocals that sound as if they were lifted straight out of Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere”. It’s little cues like this that make the rest of the record so fun.
The middle run of the album finds Gwen back in hip-hop mode, dropping the trashy, gurgling (and somewhat onomatopoeic) “Bubble Pop Electric”, the first of two fine collaborations with Andre 3000 of OutKast, followed by the ballad “Luxurious”, built around the same Isley Brothers sample as Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” was 10 years ago (and thus is perhaps the least interesting track here, though Stefani does throw us a curveball by laying some strange samples of a man speaking French over the track — the end result sounds like a blinged-out Saint Etienne). The third track in this run, “Harajuku Girls”, is produced by the legendary Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (who were responsible for the sound of much of Janet Jackson’s ’80s output, as well as shimmery ’80s ballads like Human League’s “Human”). This may set expectations a bit highthis sounds nothing like Rhythm Nation — and the lyrics are a bizarrely homoerotic tribute to Japanese pop culture, in particular fetishizing Japanese fashion (“Where the catwalk got it claws/ All you fashion know-it-alls/ With your underground malls… When you dress up in your clothes/ Wild hair color and cell phones/ your accessories are dead-on”).
After “Harajuku Girls”, however, Stefani swings back into her ’80s referencing mode and drops a string of four impeccable pop singles in a row. The first is “Crash”, an implicit tribute to Salt N Pepa’s “Push It”. Stefani nails all the vocal mannerisms, but even more impressive is her former bandmate Tony Kanal’s production on the track. One might expect Kanal-produced tracks to sound more like their former band, but in fact he reveals a major mainstream pop jones here, especially in the way he layers the cut (and one more later on) with dozens of orchestra hits (!!) the likes of which have been absent from almost all pop albums for a decade or more now (editorial disclosure: I’m a huge Pet Shop Boys fan, and their Very is one of my, um, very favorite albums and it’s just totally littered with orchestra hits). “The Real Thing” takes us back closer to No Doubt territory again, this time wedding a distinctively Peter Hook (of New Order) influenced bass line to a sweet pop ballad.
The next cut, “Serious”, is easily my favorite song on the album and is a sure contender for future single release. No Doubt fans who always secretly suspected (or feared) that Stefani may someday make a move to become a Madonna-like dance diva will find their proof in this cut, which plagiarizes Kylie Minogue’s “Fever” but makes the song even bigger and catchier, and (again, as it’s another Tony Kanal-produced jam) tosses in layers of orchestra hits and gurgling synths. This is simply unabashed dance-pop; not a ragga-pop-new wave hybrid like No Doubt often cooked up, but it’s simply fantastic because Stefani understands so many of the nuances of the genre. She and Kanal know how to stuff the track with successful references, hooks, winks and nods while completely avoiding irony, that the end result comes off as incredibly smart and researched without being studied and stodgy. It’s followed by the electro-rock stomper “Danger Zone”, which also could’ve fit on a No Doubt album, but at this point the astute listener knows to listen for so many sly references that they notice little musical tricks - like the way the song subtly shifts into a minor chord in the pre-chorus — that shows just how musically brilliant Stefani and her collaborators are. This is pop music generated from loads and loads of theory, but carefully rejects the weighty ambitions that tend to sink such efforts.
The last track, “Long Way to Go”, is the second Andre 3000 collaboration and sounds somewhat similar to OutKast’s “Spread” or their drum-and-bass reworking of “My Favorite Things” from 2003’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below, except with a more pumped-up tempo. Lyrically, it’s Stefani’s one attempt at substance, awkwardly commenting on race relations (“It’s beyond Martin Luther/ Upgrade computer/ We’ve got a long way to go”) and as such it’s a bit of a buzzkill, like the kid who decides to incoherently blather about politics at one of those week-after-the-election parties that’s supposed to take everyone’s minds off of substantive concerns.
The bulk of Love.Angel.Music.Baby is destined to be ignored by critics because its art is in recreating and playing with decidedly pop formats, and likewise No Doubt fans — ones who either empathized with Stefani’s personal lyrics on Tragic Kingdom and Return to Saturn or who liked their punked-up, ska-influenced take on ’90s pop/rock — stand a good chance at not just being disappointed, but at flatly despising this album. But with an open mind and a deep love for some of the best aspects of mainstream pop music from two distinct eras — the late 1980s and the early ’00s — Stefani’s almost science-fiction-like fusion of these disparate strands of supposedly hollow pop music can come off sounding like the greatest of artistic achievements. Love.Angel.Music.Baby. is big, brash, and divisive — but as such it deserves to be heard and re-heard.