Last year’s coolest pop star, this year’s bargain-bin fodder
Back in 2004 times were tough for pop music. Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River’ and Xtina’s ‘Dirrty’ were little more than million-dollar memories, and the sappy ringtone-romance of James Blunt was creeping into the collective consciousness. People were desperate for something with a lot of sass and a little class. Enter the unexpected ace up pop’s sleeve, a ska-obsessed faux-punk holed up in Primrose Hill. While Gwen Stefani’s band No Doubt had never been taken that seriously as a rock group, her solo debut, ‘Love Angel Music Baby’, steeped in ’80s nostalgia and super producers (Pharrell, André 3000) ensured that she became the most credible of pop stars.
In 2006 things are very different. Credible pop is not the unique commodity it once was. New releases from Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé and pop-Lazarus Nelly Furtardo have raised the bar skyward. In this climate ‘The Sweet Escape’ was always going to have to be something special in order for Stefani to retain her pole position in the pantheon of pop; but, with a woman of her taste in control and Pharrell Williams back by her side, its chances looked good. But two minutes in, and it’s clear that this chance has been pissed away.
‘Wind It Up’ is a very bad foot to start on: it’s a trench foot which screams for amputation from the tracklisting and yet has somehow found itself promoted to lead single. It’s the dribbling, squawking child of ‘Favourite Things’ by Big Brovaz and ‘My Humps’ by the Black Eyed Peas (unquestionably two of the worst songs in pop’s oft-misfiring cannon). What bizarre line of thought led anyone to believe that yodelling, The Sound Of Music and erotic rap could be successfully moulded into a single worthy of the woman whose last emergence was heralded by the spectacular ‘What You Waiting For?’? Lyrically, Gwen’s dumb sexual bravado has all the sophistication of a teenage boy’s wet dream. “They like the way my pants, it complements my shape”, she purrs, with sub-Fergie sleaze. Remember the cocky absurdity of ‘Hollaback Girl’? Well, those days have long gone, replaced by camp gimmickry. ‘Wind It Up’ only goes to show quite how far Stefani’s quality control has slipped and though nothing else on the album plunges to its depths, it’s fair to say that it never really recovers.
Gwen Stefani’s greatest selling point is that she’s Gwen Stefani, an emblem of the alternative capable of existing within the mainstream without being corrupted by its homogenising forces. Sexy enough for the tabloids, trendy enough for the fashion mags, a cool big sister for the teenyboppers and a pop star credible enough to appear on the cover of NME. Well, no longer.
Much of this album is a semi-baked imitation of musicians with half of her natural style and charisma. The aforementioned spectre of clueless Fergie possesses Stefani for much of this record, taking command during both the woefully oddball ‘Yummy’ and ‘Now That You Got It’ – a track so desperate to be a club banger, its fraying tapestry of hand-claps, sirens and triumphalism has all the grace of a Pepsi Max advert, while ‘Orange County Girl’’s themes are horribly similar to J-Lo’s putrid ‘Jenny From The Block’. The title track at least points towards Stefani’s own love of early Madonna records, but even this is cringey and saccharine.
Much of the blame apportioned to these failings must be directed at its producers and supporting cast (including Swizz Beatz and Akon), who often seem content to substitute melody for novelty. One producer, however, who does at least do what he was brought in to is Keane’s keyboardist, Tim Rice-Oxley, and his familiar snow-dome bombast presents Stefani with ‘Early Winter’, one of the few potential hits in this collection.
For all its faults there are three moments of genuine quality to be admired here. ‘4 In the Morning’ is an expertly conceived tear-jerker, the one place where her voice dictates the pace. It feels like the kind of song a teenage Stefani, miming along to Talk Talk, would have dreamt of singing one day. ‘You Started It’ is another ballad where she shines in her own image and not merely as a reflection of others. The one club track of any note is ‘Breaking Up’, on which Pharrell Williams appears to remember that he used to break musical boundaries with OCD-like regularity and offers Stefani a rattling rhythm light-years from the minimal clichés flooding the charts and drowning this album.But this is little consolation. Identity is everything in pop, but the majority of this record serves only to bury what made Gwen Stefani unique in the first place.