Better late than never? Originally announced for 2014, Gwen Stefani’s first solo album in a decade finally dropped last Friday. We can probably forgive Stefani for stretching this deadline a bit. The No Doubt frontwoman has had a lot going on in her life, between the breakdown of her 13-year marriage, an ongoing stint on ABC’s The Voice and, apparently, a nasty case of writer’s block. After a tepid response to two singles released in late 2014, Stefani discarded all her previous work on the album and started over, tapping into the emotional tumult of her divorce to produce an entirely new album intended to announce her return to solo songwriting.
This is What the Truth Feels Like was written in between a particularly rocky divorce from Gavin Rossdale and a new romance with her Voice co-star Blake Shelton. While prior knowledge of Gwen Stefani’s personal life isn’t a prerequisite for listening to the album, it’s helpful to know that it’s essentially a breakup album colored by the excitement of a new relationships. The mess of conflicting emotions that typically follow a breakup is rich ground for artistic creation, and in tapping into this messy aftermath, Stefani wavers between heartbreak, scorn, optimism, and excitement. She at least gives the impression that she’s striving for some deeper honesty than we’ve previously seen from her, and sets out to explore some themes that are at once deeply personal and universally relatable. Most of us, after all, can probably recall being caught at one point between the deep sense of loss that follows a breakup and the thrill of a new romance. This time, however, shooting for the universal doesn’t quite land.
If the idea behind This is What the Truth Feels Like () is to give us a more raw, unfiltered window into Stefani’s emotional state, it’s unfortunate that the songwriting mostly falls back on well-worn cliches, such as the opening track “Misery,” which spends most of its time comparing love to a drug. “Send Me a Picture” might be the most emblematic of the album’s consistent problem — potential that never quite delivers. In this song, the uniquely hopeful and frustrating experience of waiting around for a text from a love interest is left on the surface and ends up being dampened by repetition. Rather than making sense of the emotional tangle she’s dealt with over the past two years, Stefani somewhat jarringly jumps from one idea to the next without much sense of continuity. Packing so many concepts into the album without a sense of thematic wholeness is probably responsible for its occasionally rushed feeling. In trying to say so much at once, she ends up saying very little about anything at all.
There are undeniably some strengths on display, especially in the moments when the vulnerability she’s striving for finally shines through. The beats and instrumentation offer some interesting moments and lend a sunny, almost dreamy reggae-pop quality to the album, which works nicely with the theme of picking up and moving on. The single “Used to Love You” offers real emotional punch behind its generic pop ballad veneer, and “Me Without You” is where everything finally falls into place. Stefani’s voice, her lyrics, even the backup vocals, brim with the prowling sureness of someone looking back on a failed relationship with clear eyes, mourning the past but ready to march forward with confidence. When she belts out, “Things about to get real good,” we can’t help but believe her, although we might be left wondering why we had to wait for the second-to-last track for her vulnerability to finally emerge. All these glimpses of what might have been make the surface-level introspection of the album just that much more frustrating to listen to.
This is What the Truth Feels Like walks some fine lines. Stefani is caught in a balancing act between heartbreak and optimism, but also in striving for a greater intimacy while grounding the songs in the up-tempo brightness of her previous solo work. On top of it all, she also set herself the ambitious task of finding something more universally accessible in her personal struggles. Mining personal experience in the service of Top-40-ready hits can be a tricky balancing act, and as this album shows, it doesn’t always pay off. There is a definite sense of vulnerability here, but most of the time it comes off as half-hearted, hidden behind the polished front, never quite willing to go deeper than the surface of the themes it explores. While Truth can’t be criticized for a lack of sincerity, it’s held back by its uncertainty of what exactly it wants to be.
This is What the Truth Feels Like is available on iTunes and Amazon.
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