The difference between obscurity and overexposure is only one video and a few million Total Request Live votes. After languishing for years on the Orange County, California, ska scene, No Doubt sold 15 million copies worldwide of their 1995 album, Tragic Kingdom, largely on the strength of a power ballad that resembled nothing else on the album. Along the way, the band lost an early member to suicide, forfeited Gwen Stefani’s keyboardist brother, Eric (who co-wrote “Don’t Speak”), to a Simpsons animating job, weathered a breakup between its famous singer and bassist Tony Kanal, and revived pop-y New Wave styles when grunge was king.
Add the fact that ska has pranced back to cult status, and it would be understandable if No Doubt didn’t rise to the occasion of their sudden success. But Return of Saturn is a rare achievement: a superstar follow-up that not only betters its predecessor but also radically departs from it. If you liked Tragic Kingdom, you should love Return of Saturn. And if you didn’t, you should still love it.
No Doubt’s roots range from reggae to Broadway; they’re a something-for-everybody band that has finally grasped the means to achieve that deceptively lightweight goal. Fueled by constant touring followed by failed studio sessions with Tragic Kingdom producer Matthew Wilder and more touring, Return of Saturn is a supremely confident concept album about insecurity. Like that “Don’t Speak” video in which No Doubt men battle with Stefani for the camera’s affections, the extraordinarily tight and authoritative instrumental performances insist this is a band record, one that rocks way harder than the production credit for Glen Ballard (the studio veteran behind Alanis Morissette) might imply. For her part, Stefani pulls a technicolor star turn full of unexpected depth and flattering self-deprecation. Both sides end up winning.
“Ex-Girlfriend” sets the tone. Punk, hip-hop and world beat collide as the mood swings from manic to meditative and back again. Stefani rap-speaks of a doomed, impulsive love, warbles a tricky bridge and spits out singalong choruses as rhythms shift and guitars roar. The unlikely combination jells so effortlessly, you miss its compressed complexity.
A second after “Ex-Girlfriend” ends with a whisper, a folk-guitar strum announces “Simple Kind of Life.” Like peak-era R.E.M., this symphonic rock ballad details the tension between a fantasy of romantic commitment and the reality of independence; it manages to be at once grand, fragile and very, very sad. By the time Stefani softly confesses, “I always thought I’d be a mom / Sometimes I wish for a mistake,” it’s clear this woman whom many desire but few regard as a serious artist has penned a song that can sit on the same shelf with the likes of Elliott Smith and Aimee Mann. Her cutesy vocal mannerisms are gone, replaced by a longing that haunts well after the final chorus fades.
The improvements don’t end there. Two years spent writing, recording, trashing and rerecording Return of Saturn have paid off with a collection of uniformly well-crafted, vigorously performed tunes that run the gamut from grungy to giddy, playful to pensive. “Six Feet Under” and “Staring Problem” reference No Doubt’s Missing Persons-meets-Van Halen past, yet the results are less shrill, more self-aware. The domestic farce of “Bathwater” suggests the music-hall high jinks of their beloved 2-Tone ska heroes with some Gilbert and Sullivan slap-shtick thrown in, but it never drops the band’s signature blend of adrenaline and sugar.
The rest of Return of Saturn ventures even further away from familiar territory. “Artificial Sweetener” evokes Hole’s acrid admissions. “Comforting Lie” hints at a more melodic Korn with its fragmented, frustrated lyrics and variations between rigidity and catharsis. The propulsion fathered by bassist Kanal and drummer Adrian Young now matches any rap-metal rhythm section’s bluster. But it’s never showy, always supportive, and Tom Dumont’s guitar attack has similarly sharpened. At a time when chart bands risk few experiments, No Doubt present a kaleidoscope of vivid arrangements that can still kick butt.
Stefani matches the guys’ power with a serious restless streak, laying out her ongoing relationship with Bush’s Gavin Rossdale with humor and humility. “I’d put you on like a diamond,” she admits in “Too Late,” “so I can sparkle and be the envy of my friends.” Yet as she depicts it in “Suspension Without Suspense” and “Home Now,” their long-distance alliance breeds jealousy, loneliness and lingering uncertainty. Below its polished surfaces, Return of Saturn is bittersweetly conflicted; those contradictions underscore its purity of intent. No Doubt want to live up to their name and believe in themselves. Stefani’s inability to do just that enables her to finally transcend the band’s cartoon persona. No longer just a girl, this skanking flirt has finally grown into a woman.