It has been 11 years since No Doubt released Rock Steady, the reggae / hip-hop-infused album that left the ska-band fan base equally divided. One faction loved the new and progressive millennial sound that the band absorbed, while others believed that Gwen Stefani and the gang sold out. Two years later, the band broke up, Gwen Stefani launched a solo career and released two albums under her own name, and the future of No Doubt seemed to be a forgotten teenage fantasy. However, the dreams of No Doubt finally reuniting came into fruition when Gwen announced in 2008 that the band would be touring and making music again. But the music community worried: what kind of No Doubt would the reunion bring?
Push and Shove, the band’s answer to this question, is worth the wait, effortlessly utilizing the current trends in music, while still sounding so much like the No Doubt we know and love. The entire feel of the record is so reminiscent of what made No Doubt one of the quintessential bands of the 90s that you cannot help but smile. Even the more experimental songs, “Settle Down” and “Push and Shove,” which happen to be the album’s first two singles, still hold on to the balanced combination of pop, rock and ska that No Doubt knows so well. “Settle Down” ventures into some risky Bollywood-like instrumentals, but its chorus is so damn catchy and perfect that it is hard to resist. “Push and Shove,” the band’s self-described “Bohemian Rhapsody,” does not reach the level of Queen’s magnum opus, but is the biggest the band has ever sounded. Infusing ska, reggae and dub-step (!) into one jam about the tug-of-war of a relationship, the Major Lazer-produced song is a beautiful mess. It is always on the verge of exploding into “too-much” but somehow keeps things under the bubble in the most entertaining ways.
“Looking Hot” is the best Rock Steady song not on Rock Steady. With its disco-influenced hip-hop flavor, the song is reminiscent of one of No Doubt’s last singles, “Hella Good,” but throws in a chorus worthy of Blondie comparisons and a crazy, fun reggae bridge that weaves in wonderfully. Its ridiculous subject matter and title are campy, but No Doubt sounds like they are having the most fun they have had on a record since back in the 90’s. This should be a fan favorite and has the best possibility of any song on the album of being played on the radio and at the clubs.
The last half of the album is not as roaring as the first half in sound or experimentation; rather, it marks the band’s returns to its roots. On “Undercover” and “Heaven,” my two favorite selections off the album, the band time-travels back to the 1980s to produce sweet, synth-based songs that sound like they belong to the soundtrack of a John Hughes prom that we will never be able to attend. These songs do not seem derivative of the new wave classics by Depeche Mode, b-52’s, and New Order, but rather feel so authentic that they match the excellence of songs by these artists. On “Undone,” Gwen Stefani gives one of her rawest vocals ever, letting her voice shine and the production take a break. It reminds me of “Don’t Speak,” in its display of confessional love and unshielded romance. And finally, the album’s closer, “Dreaming the Same Dream,” is pure delight, ending the album with a sweet fantasy of young, mesmerizing love.
Yet, the album does have a few false notes. The misplaced “One More Summer” feels a bit like a corny Bon Jovi song, rather than the New Order-like anthem No Doubt is striving for. Also, Gwen’s voice is ill suited for the track, which is way too big for her. The mid-album “Easy” could have also been nixed for the final track listing. While the verses are smooth and sexy, the song falters as it falls into a generic chorus that someone as manufactured as Katy Perry could sing. These two bumps distract a bit from the otherwise excellent album.
Though fans might have worried that their foray into modern music would hurt the band, Gwen Stefani and her boys have added simple touches of 2012 to their traditional sound in a winning combination. No Doubt has returned in fine form.