With three decades of music-making behind her, Gwen Stefani isn’t attempting to cling to past successes with her new album This Is What the Truth Feels Like. Now in her late 40s, she draws on accumulated wisdom and experience to deliver pop tunes that address adult themes with her sense of fun intact. It’s actually quite an accomplishment.
The chorus of the opening track, “Misery,” reminds me of one of Pink’s full-throated in-your-face numbers. Stefani seems to channel Taylor Swift on “Where Would I Be?” But the album’s dozen tracks don’t settle for pop clichés; they carry surprises, interesting shifts, humor, echoes of youthful brashness, and dives into the emotional complexities of midlife. And they fit all this into intricate three- or three-and-a-half-minute compositions.
The former No Doubt singer’s voice remains as supple as ever, if a bit deepened by age. It retains the combination of girlishness and smooth, slightly bitter slickness that always made it distinctive and seductive. She and her producers have kept their fingers on the pulse of contemporary pop, while expanding the sonic palette. The beats and arrangements are contemporary but also inventive, the melodies appealing even as they flow in unexpected directions.
No one track stands out, but among my favorites are the muted Sade-like funk of “Send Me a Picture”; the dramatic “Naughty” with its jittery vocal twirls; and “Red Flag,” somehow both playful and threatening. Fetty Wap guests on “Asking 4 It,” in which Stefani sings, “I don’t know where I was, I was lost, I was nothing/The real version of me, I had never even seen” – and then chants with a dark sense of fun, “Are you sure you wanna love me? You’re asking for it.”
There’s a sense of mature assurance throughout the album. “I can love whoever I want, say whatever I want, do whatever I want – things are about to get real good,” Stefani declares in “Me Without You.” While a 20-something pop star might sing such lyrics with ignorant confidence, in Stefani’s older, wiser voice, it’s a declaration of a kind of victory. And a younger voice wouldn’t be too convincing singing this lyric from “Rare:” “Do you really think you want to make some new memories with me?”
Stefani gives us good reasons to make new musical memories with her on This Is What the Truth Feels Like.