The Somber Escape: Why An Album Full Of Ballads Could Be Gwen Stefani’s Best Bet

by | PopCrush
Interscope Records
Interscope Records

It’s time to have a good, long think about Gwen Stefani’s solo career. (Well, not super long.)

It hit me tonight, while snuggled up on the couch with a half-eaten Dragon Roll on my lap; Gwen’s “4 In The Morning” softly playing on repeat in the background late into the evening hours. You know, a typical Wednesday night.

Last year’s comeback track “Spark The Fire” just didn’t work. (Baby don’t, baby don’t lie…)

Why? Because the rock goddess doesn’t need an emoji-filled, Pharrell-featured radio bop that attempts to recapture the energy, spark and spunk of past successes. “Hollaback Girl” already happened. A fun song is a fun song, but Gwen can deliver more than above average kitsch-pop — especially when attempting to relaunch a solo career on hiatus after nearly a decade.

No, what Gwen needs now more than ever is a follow-up to 2006’s The Sweet Escape full of…ballads. Moody midtempos. Reflection. Introspection.

She could even call it…The Somber Escape.

Let’s remember why.

Love. Angel. Music. Baby brought us some forward-thinking, genuinely game-changing early ’00’s electro-pop, including “What You Waiting For?”, “Rich Girl,” “Luxurious” and “Hollaback Girl.” (All of it, really.)

And there, resting between the frantic noise of “Bubble Pop Electric” and the cheerleader chants of “Hollaback Girl,” was “Cool,” a Cyndi Lauper-esque ’80s New Wave classic carved out by the No Doubt frontwoman, inspired by her friendly post-relationship status with bandmate Tony Kanal. The song gave Gwen an opportunity to cool down, quite literally, from her otherwise uptempo string of smashes in the campaign. And over a decade later, it still sounds cuh-coo-ool.

What can be said about the beauty of “The Real Thing” that isn’t already said by Gwen herself in the song? It’s essentially wedding vows set to a synth-pop pulse, and a prime candidate to soundtrack a newlywed couple’s first dance: “I’ve seen your face a thousand times, have all your stories memorized / I’ve kissed your lips a million ways, but I still love to have you around.” Guh.

If the backbeat throbs too much for you to consider it a full-fledged ballad, the “Wendy & Lisa Slow Jam” mix on the deluxe edition of L.A.M.B. delivers the sweeping emotions across strings and wisps of atmospheric sound.

2006’s The Sweet Escape brought us more b-a-n-a-n-a-s beats like “Wind It Up” (a bonkers Sound Of Music moment, anyone?), but it also gave us even more grown, introspective Stefani — who might have been eerily predicting what was around the corner years later.

“Early Winter,” written alongside Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley, details a relationship on the rocks — eerily prophetic, given her split with Gavin Rossdale earlier this year. Like a prequel to “Cool,” Gwen gave us a chilly dose of vulnerability.

“4 In The Morning,” too, sees Stefani going through some rough late night emotions, aching over a relationship that just isn’t quite righ. (Again, prophetic.) The insomnia anthem was reportedly inspired by “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (The Fugees version, presumably), which you can clearly hear in both the subject matter and the backing beat.

Album closer “Wonderful Life” is essentially a ballad equipped for the dance floor, and plays like an almost ominous kiss-off. (Did he leave her all those years ago? Or is he…dead?) With a chorus that wouldn’t totally sound out of place on Depeche Mode’s Violator, Gwen bids goodbye to a former flame, with a hint of bitterness and nostalgia coming through the vivid electronic pulsations, piano and vibe-y guitars.

As recently as last year, Gwen gave us a hint of that heartfelt sound again alongside her fellow Voice coach on the piano-led “My Heart Is Open” off of Maroon 5‘s V. Was it her most innovative work, sonically speaking? No. Rather, it was her most straightforward moment in balladry yet. And yes — she can certainly pull it off, Adele style, if she really wants to.

Slower songs in Gwen’s solo catalog are harder to come by, which means that the bright, bubbly Harajuku Girl and L.A.M.B.-covered spectacle of her uptempo smashes tends to cast a shadow over her quieter, yet killer moments.

She’s got a lot to work with emotionally at this point, personally and professionally — not to say she has to go full-on Jagged Little Pill or 21 necessarily — but c’mon: No one goes through a divorce unscathed. And if she did decide to pour herself into the music beyond simple emoji escapism, we’d likely get a whole new level of sophisticated Stefani.

It’s time to get serious again, Gwen.

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