They say that great writers don’t wait around for inspiration—that they work on their craft daily: Ernest Hemmingway wrote every morning; Franz Kafka wrote in the evening; Maya Angelou rented a local hotel room and worked from 6:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., reviewing what she wrote each night and often discarding it. Gwen Stefani, who’s never been shy about her struggles with artistic motivation, seems to have turned that old axiom on its head. It took a high-profile gig on The Voice to impel her to finally resuscitate her dormant solo career, reuniting with producer Pharrell Williams, among others, for her first album in a decade, before scrapping the whole thing when her 13-year marriage to Gavin Rossdale disintegrated.
That, it seems, was the inspiration Stefani was waiting for. Back in the ’90s, Stefani’s split with No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal was, famously, fodder for the band’s breakthrough Tragic Kingdom, and the unapologetically autobiographical This Is What the Truth Feels Like similarly wastes no time asserting its status as a breakup album. Lead single “Used to Love You” is as emotionally raw as the singer’s been since “Don’t Speak,” both vocally and lyrically, and pointed barbs presumably aimed at Rossdale are scattered throughout the album: “Thinking that nobody knows, but I got your number, I got your codes,” she quips on “Naughty,” suggestive of media reports that she found out about the former Bush frontman’s infidelity via the family iPad. While an artist converting personal tragedy into creative capital is hardly new, the nakedness with which Stefani assesses the ruins of her relationship is stark, especially compared to the self-proclaimed guilty pleasures of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and The Sweet Escape.
Much of the album is, however, about the discovery of new love. “You’re in so much trouble,” Stefani warns on the standout “Misery,” yet despite the implication of the song’s title, her target isn’t Rossdale, but a prospective lover. “They’re all gonna say I’m rebounding, so rebound all over me,” she sings on “Truth,” and playful puns aside, one instantly worries for the obviously vulnerable Stefani, ever the hopeless romantic, falling all over again. “I can love whoever I want/Say whatever I want/Do whatever I want,” she declares on “Me Without You,” capturing the sense of relief and possibility that can often line the dark clouds of a painful breakup.
That track, along with most of the rest of the album’s back half, foolishly tries too hard to recapture the attitude and urban-leaning beats in abundance on Stefani’s first two albums. “Red Flag” is a cathartic, eccentric oddity that finds Stefani tempering her anger with irony, her cries morphing into laughter, but the dated “Asking 4 It,” featuring Fetty Wap, and bonus tracks like “Obsessed” are no more worthy of Stefani’s emotional exorcism than 2014’s stale “Start the Fire,” which was wisely left off the album. It’s easy to chastise aging pop stars for chasing trends or trying to recapture past glories, but those efforts here are thrown into sharp relief by the maturity of the album’s first half. Understated pop songs like the buoyant disco-rock “Make Me Like You” and the midtempo “Truth,” which, rather than blast off, chugs along unassumingly, give Stefani the sonic space necessary to mourn the loss of her partner and dream of her future with a new one.