This Is What The Truth Feels Like

Gwen Stefani

Interscope, 2016

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


The 2015 book The Hit Factory is an entertaining, bracing, and very eye-opening look at the current state of pop music. With nods to hit factories of the past like Motown, Brill Building, and the Philly soul sound, the book discusses the Swedish pop sound that took its cues from Abba in producing massive hits by Ace Of Base, the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, and NSYNC in the 1990s, and how protégés of that sound like Dr. Luke, Max Martin, and the duo Stargate produce and write a large amount of the music you hear on the radio today.

The book details the factory-like production used, how a group of professional beat writers, melody writers (the "toplines"), hook writers, lyric writers, and "vibe people" come together at mansions and writers' camps to craft music. The complete opposite of an organic vibe, the beats are professionally shopped around, matched with the best toplines and hooks, and then buffed to a polish. Top singers like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Kesha, Taylor Swift (at least on 1989), Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber then sing over top of the songs, and studio producers will cut and paste the best versions of the songs – in some cases, cutting and pasting each individual syllable – to achieve perfection. A solid hook must appear every seven seconds (the prime example is Rihanna's "Umbrella" and Katy Perry's "Firework") to keep the listener's interest. 

While it's not clear if Gwen Stefani's third solo album was created with this same group of people, it certainly appears that way; Stargate is credited as a producer and each song has at least three credited writers, although it does appear Stefani wrote most, if not all, of the lyrics. Furthermore, a total of eight studios were used to record at least parts of this disc, including two in Sweden, and two of the songwriters on pretty much every track are Justin Trantor and Julia Michaels, who have worked extensively with major EDM artists as well as current young pop stars Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and actress Hailee Steinfeld.   

Maybe looking behind the curtain, like one does at a slaughterhouse or Congress, is a bad idea to see how the end product is made. But there are few moments where Gwen's album doesn't feel like my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 product, calculated and produced to hit the right audio and lyrical buttons in the brain, calculated to blend in perfectly with the current radio landscape. Worst of all, the music is so soulless and mediocre that it sounds like it could have been written for anybody; one can easily imagine Rihanna or Bieber singing more than half of these songs, or Nicki Minaj on the kinda-embarrassing "Naughty." 

Not that this is Stefani's fault; as I described above, this is the current state of pop music, and like most pop, it relies on the personality of the singer when the music itself is second-rate. And on that level, This Is What The Truth Feels Like succeeds, as it balances Stefani's charm, emotion, and latent naughty streak in both her performance and her words. 

Most people with a passing knowledge of pop culture know that Stefani recently divorced from husband Gavin Rossdale of Bush and, later, started a relationship with fellow Voice host Blake Shelton. Her last solo album in 2006 wasn't a major success and she pursued other projects in that time, including becoming a mother, but the two relationships spurred her creativity and resulted in the 12 songs that lie herein. The results are split evenly; about half the tunes concern new love and the other half the regret, anger, and conflicting emotions that follow a failed relationship. 

Certainly, those who absolutely adore the current Top 40 will find much to love here in both music and words. Stefani sings about her own life but in universal, simple themes that apply to anybody who has been where she is now. The best example of this the current hit "Used To Love You," where she addresses Rossdale and her own feelings: "I don't know why I cry / But I think it's 'cause I remembered for the first time since I hated you / That I used to love you...You thought there were no boundaries / When you pushed me too far / I guess nobody taught you how to love."

The simplicity of the occasional lyric can be a little shameful at times, perhaps because Stefani has proven herself capable of more than "Oh God, thank God that I found you / I'm so mad at you now 'cause you got me missing you," but she throws in the occasional nifty line ("I really like you, but I'm so scared") that betrays the actual emotion in Stefani's beating heart.

For the core mall audience of teenagers who live and die by pop radio as a barometer of what's cool – and who may remember their parents mentioning how No Doubt was cool in 1995 – this disc will be on repeat on their iPods. As of this writing, the album had already hit #1, a first for Stefani. Pity that the music is so commercial and radio-ready that it sucks the soul out of Stefani's diary entries. Pity also that she – whether by design or by producer mandate – appears to chase trends in a blatant attempt to land in Ryan Seacrest's Top 40, hence the simplistic sexting lyrics of "Send Me A Picture" and the awful "Naughty," which starts as an Amy Winehouse-like piece but quickly goes off the rails into lewd cartoon territory, the Barney Stinson of 2016 pop songs.

The truth is that Stefani has something to say and deserves to be a star. Here's hoping that her themes and personality continue to stand the test of time, because this music is so firmly tied to the current era that it's unlikely anybody will remember it in 10 years.

Rating: C-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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