Gwen Stefani

This Is What the Truth Feels Like

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It's hard to view the title of This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Gwen Stefani's first solo album in ten years, as anything other than confession: she's put away childish things so she can focus on what's real. Given that her past decade consisted of raising kids, divorcing a husband, stumbling through a No Doubt reunion, and finding redemption as a television star, there's a lot of ground for her to cover, which may be why This Is What the Truth Feels Like feels like a bit of mess. Some of this incoherence is endemic to pop in the mid-2010s, where standard operating procedure calls for superstars to work with a revolving team of producers, not a key collaborator. Some of this is also due to Stefani's desire to be everything to everyone, a grande dame who revels in her past while living for the future. By pursuing the twin inclinations to spill her heart while pushing musically forward, Stefani often mangles the mood. Otherwise light-hearted openers "Misery" and "You're My Favorite" accidentally dredge up a melancholy air, while the purportedly heartbroken "Used to Love You" achieves the opposite effect: Stefani seems thrilled that her relationship is now nothing more than a memory. "Used to Love You" is one of many allusions to her divorce from Bush leader Gavin Rossdale -- the icy "Me Without You" is another -- but far from wallowing in her loss, Stefani spends roughly half of the record singing breezy songs of liberation. On groovy slices of retro-disco like "Where Would I Be?" and "Make Me Like You," or the glossy adult pop of "Truth," she seems free, never hustling to be hip nor settling into a role as an elder stateswoman. Such a balance is delicate, and it's also fleeting. By the end of the record, Stefani is sinking into the thudding bass trap of "Red Flag" and wagging her finger in "Naughty," overcooked club cuts where she seems to be running to stand still. So much of Stefani's appeal lies in her lightness -- she's either sweet or insouciantly sassy -- that when she gets heavy with either beats or ballads, This Is What the Truth Feels Like slows to a crawl. Cut away these excesses -- these moments of emotional bloodletting or thirsty appeals to the top of the charts -- and This Is What the Truth Feels Like manages to be as fleet, giddy, and charming as Gwen Stefani ever is.

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