Members of No Doubt include Tony Kanal , left, Adrian Young, Gwen Stefani… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)
Gwen Stefani poses some big questions on "Push and Shove," the first album from her SoCal ska-pop band in 11 years.
"What happened to us?" she wonders in the shimmering, neo-new wave "Undercover," while the bass-heavy "Sparkle" finds her asking, "Do you remember how it was?"
In context, each of these queries is addressed to a lover (or a warmly remembered ex). "Feelings change and people can get lost," she continues in "Sparkle," her lightweight voice heavy with regret, "But I still think of you so much."
There's no denying, though, that for a group whose last studio disc came out in 2001 — before Lady Gaga, before Katy Perry, and before the huge solo success of Stefani herself — all that romantic curiosity serves as a rephrasing of another question, one the singer boils to its essence not long into "Push and Shove": "Do you think I'm looking hot?"
Yes, it's been a virtual lifetime in pop since we last heard new music from No Doubt, which rocketed out of Orange County with 1995's gazillion-selling "Tragic Kingdom" and went on to become one of that decade's most important acts. And though the band's influence is clear in the glossy, vividly omnivorous work of fresh-faced stars like fun. and Carly Rae Jepsen, Stefani and her bandmates sound fully aware of the precarious position they're in now, at a moment when the Top 40 is crammed with newcomers and long-term brand loyalty has all but evaporated among young listeners.
"We're so lucky, still holding on," she sings in "Gravity."
In fact, they're doing more than that: At its best, "Push and Shove" channels some of the infectiously restless energy of "Rock Steady," the band's pre-hiatus farewell. And it further polishes a bold mix-and-match aesthetic that feels familiar today in part because of records such as "Tragic Kingdom."
"I'm like a trend / I'm back and forth," Stefani sings over the surging electro-funk of "Heaven," and that's how No Doubt works here, pumping up a pounding arena-rave beat in "Looking Hot," then scaling down to a spooky synth pulse for "Easy"; elsewhere, the group imports Bollywood-style strings in "Settle Down" and recruits the producer Diplo for a jolt of dancehall electricity in the title track.
As during No Doubt's heyday, there's an unembarrassed quality to all the dabbling on "Push and Shove" — which, true, is how you end up with a lyric like "La-la-la-la vida loca / We speeding it up like soca," but also how you get a tune as gloriously '80s-indebted as "One More Summer." The members even borrow from their own catalog: "Sparkle" is more or less a rewrite of Stefani's solo hit "Cool" with added rocksteady horns.
So to answer Stefani's question: Sure, No Doubt is still looking hot. But these alt-pop survivors are acknowledging their age too, emphasizing what they can do that Selena Gomez perhaps can't.
Near the end of "Push and Shove," the band (which will begin a six-night stand at L.A.'s Gibson Amphitheatre on Nov. 24) clears away all the au courant electronic clutter for "Undone," a lush troubled-love ballad in the vein of old No Doubt hits like "Don't Speak" and "Simple Kind of Life."
"I made you feel like you were lucky to have me," Stefani sings, crystallizing a sentiment countless pop songs dance around. "But now I'm panicking, I'm lost / You're the one I need / Be patient please."
If she's talking to us, she's bought herself a few more years.
"Push and Shove"