Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Ryan Middleton and Jon Niles chat about Gwen Stefani's new album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like.
Carolyn Menyes: There are a few things that we know about Gwen Stefani, or that we knew before she decided to be the most irritating coach on The Voice (and that is a TALL order, trust me). First, we know she can write some of the most killer breakup songs, both at once subtle and biting (Tragic Kingdom is a masterpiece). Secondly, we know that Gwen has the possibility to release some of the most bangin' pop music as a solo artist. I counted down the release date of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. in the seventh grade and maintain the opinion that it's full of some of the best mid-2000s pop jams out there.
So, in the wake of her divorce from Gavin Rossdale, these two worlds were bound to collide with her third solo effort, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. The result could have been a fascinating look into the life of a new divorcee on the verge of a new era in her life. But, I don't know, the songwriting never quite got there and a lot of this record drags, despite the strong showing of her singles and teaser tracks...
What are your initial thoughts, boys? And how hard did you get down to "What You Waiting For?" back in the day???
Jon Niles: This is What the Truth Feels Like? More like, this is what a yawn feels like, am I right? Seriously though, the perfection that is Tragic Kingdom does not excuse the disappointment I'm feeling for this album.
I was never really a fan of her solo career when it started and blew up, but I accepted it - until today. I'm so very proud of Gwen for ditching Gavin after yet another infidelity scandal, but it really isn't reflected in these songs.
Ryan Middleton: It has been 10 years since fans have recieved a solo LP from Gwen Stefani the new LinkedIn Ambassador (because nothing says let me reach these kids like Linkedin).
As you guys mentioned, this album came right on the back of her divorce with Gavin Rossdale, which probably prompted a lot of inspiration to write and record new music, but it feels like a lot of the songs are about a new relationship. Even "Misery" is about the misery of missing someone. The album feels uneven and top heavy with some of the stronger singles up top and weird attempts at rapping and random Fetty Wap down on the bottom.
CM: The strength of this album does come, as should have been expected, from the truthiness in Stefani's songwriting, and the way this record was tracked, that does lead to a very top-heavy album.
When I first heard lead single "Used to Love You," I was really impressed with the vulnerability she displayed. It was really reminiscent of something like "Cool" or "Ex-Girlfriend." I felt a lot of Gwen personally in that song, and it explored a breakup in honest terms.
Of course, we have the hero of this Gavin Rossdale split in Blake Shelton, and their emerging relationship actually inspired more of this album than her ex. I feel like you're both misinterpreting "Misery" a little bit -- it's about finding that next person to help you get over the misery of a breakup. Sure, the "You're like drugs" trope is BEYOND tired, but as a thesis statement for This Is What the Truth Feels Like, it's a really effective song, and there's something about the driving pop beat that resonates with this fun spring/summer vibe.
Falling in line with that, we also have the album's fifth song "Truth," where she sings about how her new relationship will be perceived about being a rebound. She's nervous about the public perception but has to move on and follow her heart. It's also a pretty strong piece of lyricism. But, yeah, after song six ("Used to Lovee You"), this record trails off and I became wholly disinterested.
JN: There are definitely standout tracks for me as well. While I'll never stop complaining about the lazy production and songwriting in a number of these songs (namely "You're My Favorite," "Me Without You," and "Naughty"), I genuinely enjoyed "Where Would I Be?," "Make Me Like You," the songs that Carolyn just mentioned, and the closing song, "Rare." These songs made me tune out judgement and allowed a real listening experience. Other songs had too many distractions for me.
I'm very surprised that none of us have brought up "Send Me A Picture," which is clearly Gwen's attempt at relating to teens with a sort of Snapchat anthem. It also makes me think too much about the hypothetical photos Blake sends Gwen, which is a big "no thanks" in my book. The sentiment of the song is pretty sweet, but considering the mental images it evokes, I need to skip this track every time.
I want to hear both of your opinions on "Send Me A Picture" because it's clearly affecting me in a bizarre way, you guys.
RM: Gwen does feel more vulnerable with this LP, but it always feels like she could give a little more. At this point in her career she doesn't really need to worry about sales, though Interscope wouldn't mind, and could lay it all out on the table from past, present and future.
This almost feels as though she was trying to put out an album that was more about the complete piece of work with a story to tell, which she obviously does, than a compilation of hit singles, but got somewhat caught in between. At the top, songs like "Make Me Like You" and "Truth" stand out as some of the most memorable for being at least temporary earworms and solid production. The live music video at the Grammys for "Make Me Like You" helps as well.
As for "Send Me A Picture" Jon, it has a tweeny feel that her voice still can match. The question of "are you listening to music" sounds a bit accusatory like "you better be listening to my album!" It is an odd song all around and brings her back to the very young infatuation phase of a relationship.
The production beyond some of the JR Rotem stuff that veers into odd hip-hop infused tracks is pretty consistent and works the whole album.
CM: I said this album trailed off after song six, and guess what track is number seven? "Send Me a Picture!" I mean, it captures that sort of infatuation of the earliest stage of a relationship nicely (and maybe ventures a bit into sexting, which eww) but I think the music is a little bit dull, and does text communication make for the most engaging song? Nah. There are more exciting ways to capture a new relationship (see: "Make Me Like You"). Also, your comment about Blake listening to Gwenny's album made me laugh. He bought SIX copies! I can't tell if that's five too many or 20 too few...
I may have gone overboard... pic.twitter.com/JCWjC7aVu8
— Blake Shelton (@blakeshelton) March 18, 2016
But, yeah, I think the thing about this record is that we KNOW what Gwen can do. As I mentioned in my opening, this is the woman who gave us one of the best breakup songs of all time ("Don't Speak") and some of the most stupidly infectious pop music ("Hollaback Girl").
Combining those forces, and the fact that Gwen's star never seems to fade despite extended amounts of time out of the spotlight, could have made for a tremendous LP. And we got something that settled in the middle.
I think the songs that are the clunkiest for me are the three hip-hop influenced tracks near the end. As you mentioned, there's something soulless about "Naughty" and "Red Flag" is angry without being passionate. As for Fetty Wap's guest verse... it's misplaced. Even Gwen admitted she has no idea what the hell he's saying, so why include it at all? Was Eve too busy?
JN: Taking a look at Eve's Instagram account, she's kind of busy, but I would've loved to hear that reunion.
Overall, it's a shame that Gwen Stefani couldn't capitalize on the fact that she is Gwen Stefani. She had 10 years to make this album, but it feels rushed and as if she started working on it last month. Instead of the breakup record of the year, we get a collection of pretty good songs mixed with mediocre ones, all of which are pandering to a young generation of fans with forced lyrics and the random Fetty Wap verse. That's not to say it hasn't worked for her in the past, though. Love. Angel. Music. Baby. took this recipe and ran with it, but was it a flash in the pan?
Like Carolyn said, "we KNOW what Gwen can do," and that's why there is a strong sense of disappointment surrounding this record.
RM: Yeah I think that is another important point. We know that Gwen can deliver on some A+ level pop music that spans from music meant for deep in the heart to others that just hearing the title will evoke memories associated with that song. It is hard to imagine any of these songs coming out on that level.
As for Blake, since this album is all about you buddy, go ahead and buy the most you can without setting off Neilson. Be a gentleman there big guy. As for Eve, her Instagram could probably use a song or studio pic on there.
She has been good at always staying in the spotlight for better and for worse with fashion, TV etc and then with the tabloids, so there wasn't the need for a big, desperate comeback campaign thankfully. Her being so busy with other things could be why this album seemed so rushed, but with a decade in between LPs I think a few more months or even a year could have been taken to iron out a few of the wrinkles here.
CM: There was a good bit of potential on this album -- the power and poppy punch of "Make Me Like You," "Misery" and "Used to Love You" proved that. But, once you moved away from the teaser tracks (and album standout "Truth," which should be the next single), there wasn't much here. But, even if the results were a little mixed, I will say it's nice to hear Gwen writing from an honest place again. I was relistening to parts of her first two albums while we were emailing this, and I do NOT miss the Harajuku Girls... So, to that end, call this album a nice return to form for ol' Gwenny.
RM: The ball was teed up perfectly for Gwen -- a fresh and harsh heartbreak for her to delve into, with a new relationship to provide some extra material. The top started out strong with some strong lyrics and Top 40 radio appeal, but then it just tailed off towards the end. it is almost like she lost interest in writing the full album. It does feel honest, but could be a stronger work from top to bottom. Nonetheless, fans will find plenty to enjoy in this as will Mr. Shelton.
JN: It's clear that I am not a fan of this album, nor the solo career of Gwen Stefani. I was hoping for some great, catchy hooks, but I had to settle for only a handful of okay songs with an occasional spike in enjoyment thanks to "Make Me Like You" and one or two more. This is a record that I'll forget by the end of the year or probably earlier than that. My hopeful expectations were outweighed by the clear reality that I am no longer a fan of Gwen Stefani, no matter how many times I can listen to "Sunday Morning" or "Spiderwebs."