The guys and gal of No Doubt have never been bashful about their arduous songwriting process. Both their 1995 breakthrough, Tragic Kingdom, and its follow-up, Return of Saturn, infamously took years to complete. Perhaps tellingly, the band’s best album, 2001’s Rock Steady, was written and recorded in just a few short months. But while Push and Shove, their first album in 11 years and only their fifth in two decades, didn’t come to fruition quite as effortlessly as its predecessor, sonically it plays like a logical continuation, reprising that album’s dancehall and dub styles and largely eschewing the ska sound that made No Doubt famous in the first place.
True to its name, Push and Shove explodes out of the gate, starting with lead single “Settle Down,” a track that, at least after a regal orchestral intro, wastes no time reassuring listeners that the band hasn’t settled down despite the fact that all of its members are now in their early 40s and have eight children among them. “I’m fine,” Gwen Stefani promises in her trademark lilting harmonies, “Nothing’s gonna knock this girl down.” Like No Doubt’s best singles, “Settle Down” somehow manages to be both silly and cool. “Looking Hot” and the Major Lazer-assisted title track likewise play both sides: They’re unabashedly on trend, employing Eurotrash synth melodies and 4/4 beats, but never acquiesce the signature No Doubt sound. Stefani waxes nostalgic, as is her wont, over cool, wistful synths and a stomping kick drum on “One More Summer,” an epic new-wave track that’s one of the album’s best, and “Easy,” a moody electro ballad that’s diminished only by a chorus that treads a bit too close to ‘80s yacht rock.
By and large, the more interesting tracks are stacked on the front end of Push and Shove, and the songs on the second half of the album are comparably safer, blurring together upon first listen. The country-flecked “Undone” finds the band charting new territory, but beyond some slide guitar strains, the song is just your average, run-of-the-mill pop-rock ballad, while the bubble-gum pop “Heaven” sounds like filler from an album by Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, or, hell, even Gwen Stefani. The exception is “Sparkle,” which simply teems with hooks and wouldn’t sound out of place alongside the best tracks on Rock Steady. The track exemplifies everything No Doubt is about: marrying dancehall and pop, and juxtaposing hard and soft.