Gwen Stefani’s solo career, following her split from No Doubt, marked a visual and sonic step forward for early 2000s pop music. After releasing two well-received albums Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and The Sweet Escape in 2004 and 2006, respectively, Stefani proved a seamless transition from pop-leaning rock into a purely pop sound was totally doable. Then she surprisingly disappeared for a long time — in 2014 she released two singles “Baby Don’t Lie” and “Spark the Fire”, but then scrapped the whole album she was working on. Now, in 2016, Stefani is finally gearing up to release her official follow-up to The Sweet Escape, called This Is What the Truth Feels Like (out March 18 on Interscope).
Last year in an interview with San Diego’s 93.3, Stefani called the new wistfully-titled album a definitive breakup record, referring to her recent divorce from Bush lead singer Gavin Rossdale. The first single from the album “Used to Love You,” a grievous ballad about coping with heartbreak, clearly sets the stage for the fragility of emotion that runs throughout the upcoming release. In the single’s video, Stefani stares directly into camera as she fights through the pain of a broken heart, similar to the way Sinéad O’Connor breaks the fourth wall in her video for “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
Last week, Stefani tweeted a handwritten note of the tracklist for the upcoming album, followed by four red hearts and the caption “This Is What the Truth Feels Like…” Up until this point, the name of the album was unknown. Judging by the names of the songs, lovesick anguish will be potent in songs like “Me Without You,” “Red Flag,” and the album’s opener, the aptly-titled “Misery.” There are, however, some other titles here that hint at a happier Gwen, perhaps a Gwen that is falling in love again. It has recently been confirmed that Stefani is dating country singer and The Voice costar Blake Shelton, which may account for some of the brighter titles here like “You’re My Favorite” or “Rare.”
Right before the Grammys, Stefani released the album’s lead single “Make Me Like You,” a breezy, head-in-the-clouds song about hopelessly falling for someone. Compared to the heartbreaking “Used to Love You,” which served as our introduction to the new album, “Make Me Like You”— co-written by Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, who famously penned Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself” and Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” among several other Billboard hits — finds Stefani in a brighter and dizzy emotional state. Maybe the album will also explore the experience of getting unexpectedly swept off your feet, even when you thought love was completely out of the question.
Following the release of “Make Me Like You,” Stefani announced she would perform the song live during a Target-funded Grammys commercial break. The footage collected during the commercial break, then, would end up the official music video. By and large the commercial music video confused a lot of Grammy viewers, as they weren’t sure if it was a live performance (it was!) at the Grammys (it wasn’t!) or somewhere else (it was!). With the first-ever live music video filmed during a commercial break, Stefani had effectively hopped on the bandwagon of using innovative and unusual technologies to promote or debut new music. It’s one of those things that sounds like it might be interesting because it’s the first of its kind, but it just looked like she was very prepared to film a music video in one take.
As is the case with any pop star who delays a follow-up record for 10 years, the pressure is on Stefani to deliver. Based on what we’ve seen and heard so far — aside from the confusing Target-backed commercial music video — Stefani is drawing inspiration from all the right places. Her heart must be in rough shape, but at least she’s harnessing the whirlwind of emotions to revitalize her promising pop career.