One of the many great lines from the vastly underrated 2014 rom-com “Obvious Child” seems to speak to struggling artists everywhere: “Creative energy sometimes comes from the lowest point in your life.” Whether you’re a writer, filmmaker or musician, a crappy moment in life — a breakup, a death of a loved one, getting fired from a job — can be the best starting point to something great, even if means starting over completely.
Gwen Stefani, one of today’s most recognized and successful pop stars, is no stranger to grappling with this kind of experience. After ending her 13-year marriage with Bush member Gavin Rossdale, Stefani hit a few bumps on the road to her comeback record, which was originally scheduled to be released in 2014. After two forgettable, commercially unsuccessful singles, Stefani decided to scrap the whole project and begin anew. Luckily, a fresh perspective on her songwriting and a burgeoning romance with “The Voice” co-star Blake Shelton culminated into what would become her third record, This is What the Truth Feels Like, a relentlessly optimistic album about letting go of the past and relishing in the glory of the present.
Throughout the record, Stefani focuses on this duality between the past and the present, especially on the bouncy opener “Misery,” where she discusses forgetting about a previous lover as she accepts a new one. Even after “Misery” trickles to a close, Stefani manages to keep the song’s refreshing energy going throughout the rest of This is What the Truth Feels Like, such as with the trap-inspired “You’re My Favorite” and the ska-infused “Where Would I Be?” But perhaps Stefani’s biggest breakthrough moment comes at the record’s fourth track, “Make Me Like You.”
In addition to its wonderful, bright music video, “Make Me Like You” is Stefani’s best and most polished work since 2006’s “The Sweet Escape.” The track’s buoyant, glamorous rhythm and infectious lyrics perfectly encapsulate the giddy adrenaline rush of starting a new romantic relationship (in this case, with Blake Shelton). But while Stefani’s gushes are playful and sweet, her true feelings and emotional maturity are palpable. This isn’t just a silly love song about a girl with a simple crush — it’s about someone who’s ready to move on with her life and who has found someone new to share her life with.
The central theme to This is What the Truth Feels Like may grow tiresome at times, but Stefani’s glowing ambition only fuels more innovative breakup anthems and romantic odes. The acoustic-heavy “Truth” and saccharine synth jingle “Used to Love You” are sensible both in their sound and lyrical delivery; the groovy dancehall jam “Send Me a Picture” and the vaudevillian “Naughty” are fun detours into flirtation; “Me Without You” and “Rare,” the record’s final tracks, are among the album’s catchiest and funkiest. There are, of course, a few weak moments on the record, particularly with “Asking 4 It,” a trivial hip-hop exercise with a head-scratching feature from Fetty Wap. Even more cringeworthy is Stefani quasi-rapping on the strange, operatic “Red Flag,” which slightly undermines Stefani’s personal growth. But honestly, what would you expect from the singer who did “Hollaback Girl” and “Wind It Up”?
If there’s one person who’s an expert in expressing the ups and downs of relationships through pop music, it’s Gwen Stefani (though Taylor Swift also has a compelling case). This skill can be traced back to 1995, when Stefani’s rocky romance with her No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal inspired hits like “Sunday Morning,” “Hey You” and most notably, “Don’t Speak.” But what makes This is What the Truth Feels Like so distinctive from other pop records is its ability to deftly balance both the closure of old relationships and the excitement of new ones. Considering Stefani’s scope and breadth of musical experience, her words have been able to transcend the barriers of music. Despite only three albums under her belt, Stefani’s influence over pop is powerful, especially with an album as wholesome as This is What the Truth Feels Like.