Full Of Artificial Sweetener: No Doubt’s Return Of Saturn at 20
Gwen and the fellas ushered in the new century with a fussy and fantastic new wave classic
The intersection of womanhood, romance and self-esteem has almost always been at the forefront of No Doubt.
Sure, their first two albums touched on those topics a bit, but it wasn’t until fetchingly-tomboyish-vocalist-turned-badass-pop-culture-icon frontwoman Gwen Stefani took over songwriting duties after her brother, Eric, left that the ska/alternative rock/new wave quartet revealed just how infectiously, wisely, and honestly they could handle that subject matter. Of course, their landmark third album, 1997’s Tragic Kingdom, saw Stefani and company tackle such ideas via gracefully catchy odes of longing (“Don’t Speak,” “End It on This”), rebellious tell-offs (“Sunday Morning,” “Happy Now?”), and glitzily fun punk rock declarations of female independence and agency (“Spiderwebs,” “Just a Girl”). Centered around Stefani’s break-up with bassist Tony Kanal, Tragic Kingdom was kind of like reimagining Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours through the lens of colorfully hyperactive high school angst.
In contrast, its follow-up, Return of Saturn (which turns twenty this month), feels more developed, centered and substantial, as if its handling the same concerns and commentaries (among others) through the lens of college-aged introspection, with a speaker who now looks past the trivialities of yesteryear to concentrate on the expectations and desires of adulthood. For one thing, Stefani moves away from the bitterness of breaking up with Kanal to focus on the promise and excitement of a deeper relationship with Bush’s Gavin Rossdale (whom she married in 2002 and divorced in 2016). That change in—and maturity of—core songwriting, coupled with its more unified and striving arrangements and melodies, means that Return of Saturn was a step forward in virtually every way. It’s not as diverse or entertaining as the still-exceptional Tragic Kingdom (whose closing title track goes full-on prog rock), but it is undoubtedly more meaningful, dark, ambitious, and enduring. Two decades later, it remains No Doubt’s superlative statement.
The massive success of Tragic Kingdom came at the perfect time for No Doubt, as their 1992 self-titled debut did so poorly that Interscope Records and its subsidiary, Trauma Records, basically abandoned them for their sophomore effort, The Beacon Street Collection (which ended up selling three times as many records, leading to more label support for that third outing). Combine that with the fact that Return to Saturn saw the official departure of Eric Stefani—as well as the fact they they’d just spent two-and-a-half years touring Tragic Kingdom–and it’s easy to see why there was so much internal and external turmoil as the record was being made.
Specifically, they had trouble coming up with enough satisfying tracks, sparking creative differences. Naturally, they were also pressured to deliver a new album ASAP to capitalize on the popularity of Tragic Kingdom—which they fought against—and further dissent occurred when, upon concluding that they’d finished the album around July 1999, the label asked them to continue working to produce more marketable material. Reportedly, Stefani agreed but guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young didn’t, so there was some conflict there. Obviously, they resolved things, scribed a few new tunes, and got to work finalizing the sequence and working on its artwork and marketing. Along the way, they fired Tragic Kingdom producer Matthew Wilder and sought out a few others (namely, RHCP and Soundgarden craftsman Michael Beinhorn) before settling on Glen Ballard (who also worked on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie).
Originally, the disc was going to be called Magic’s in the Makeup, but Stefani’s rapid interest in tragic poet Sylvia Plath, battle with depression, and discontent about turning thirty-years-old led Rossdale to comment that she must be going through “Saturn’s return” (which is commonly tied to self-reflection regarding getting older and becoming increasingly pragmatic). Clearly, those feelings appear in the lyrics, too, with Stefani bolding turning away from the proudly defiant and confident female liberation of Tragic Kingdom to speak more on the stereotypically gendered expectations of yearning for marriage, motherhood, and general domesticity. (There’s also some insight into the guilt and uncertainty she felt balancing her personal and professional lives.) On the surface, that may sound like she suddenly succumbs to the societal norms of what a woman “should” be and do, but really, those wishes and quandaries are always the result of her own heart and mind, so she’s merely redefining her role as a feminist icon rather than forsaking it.
At times, Return of Saturn upholds the raucous ska, reggae, and punk energy and density of its predecessors, but it also finds the band delving further into new wave, funk, nu metal, swing, alternative rock, and pop accessibility. There’s even a surprising amount of classical touches scattered around. It’s no wonder, then, why several publications—such as AllMusic, Slant and Rolling Stone—praised its more refined and focused, yet also sufficiently adventurous and go-getting, nature. In addition, it debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200 and sold over 200,000 copies in its first week; as a result, the RIAA certified it platinum in May 2000, and it was nominated for Best Rock Album at the 2001 Grammy Awards (ultimately losing to Foo Fighters’ There is Nothing Left to Lose).
Although much of the LP charts relatively new territory, even at its most recognizable, it’s still progressive, exciting, and durable. For instance, its third track, “Bathwater,” features the bouncy rhythms, warm horns and edgy singing of Tragic Kingdom; yet it’s also delightfully nuanced and sleek, with a central metaphor (“wash[ing] in your old bathwater”) striking a balance between adolescent infatuation and grown-up commitment and appreciation. Afterward, “Staring Problem” is a purposely playful, dissonant, and superficial throwback to earlier tunes; admittedly, it’s by far the most regressive and disposable track here, but its inclusion nonetheless shows how advanced the surrounding pieces are. Hell, even quirkily catchy B-sides like “Cellophane Boy” and “Beauty Contest” find a middle ground between the old and the new, as their respective topics (wanting a family and the destructive nature of vanity) sound like they could’ve come out in the mid-90s but still would’ve been at home on Return of Saturn.
That said, the best songs are the ones that push No Doubt the furthest. Opener “Ex-Girlfriend” itself is quite a multifaceted triumph. Its initial flamenco acoustic guitar strums (reminiscent of “Don’t Speak”), digital sound effects, and feisty assertions (pointedly aimed at Rossdale via the reference to Bush’s “Dead Meat,” “You say you’re gonna burn before you mellow / I will be the one to burn you”) aren’t too left of center; however, the fluidly hypnotic deviations into rap and pop ballad are. Beyond that, the general intricacy and variety of the song are commendable, as it features nearly half a dozen movements without ever losing coherency. Instead, it’s wholly absorbing.
Next, “Simple Kind of Life” is notably symphonic, honest, and fragile, with celebratory chorus contrasted by Stefani’s sweetly heartbreaking voice and poetically blunt lyrics (“I always thought I’d be a mom / Sometimes I wish for a mistake / The longer that I wait, the more selfish that I get / You seem like you’d be a good dad”). From there, “Magic’s in the Makeup” deals with cognitive dissonance, identity, and responsibility with dazzling timbres and a solid grove; “Artificial Sweetener” confronts the aforementioned self-evaluation with a mix of fiery unrest and compassionate reserve; “Marry Me” is a terrific fusion of reggae friskiness and cold singer/songwriter confessional (complete with clever wordplay); and “New” is a lustrously anthemic testament to new romance. Clearly, the first half or so of Return of Saturn is as fresh, experimental, and mature as it is familiar and fun.
VIDEO: No Doubt “Simple Kind Of Life”
The major gems of the LP, though, are saved for the end, with the trifecta of “Too Late,” “Home Now,” and “Dark Blue” providing the most mesmerizingly bittersweet songs No Doubt ever wrote. The first is chillingly elegant and glossy, revealing how crucial and characteristic Stefani’s backing vocals have always been around her singing tender infatuations like “Then I’d put you on / Like a diamond / So I can sparkle and be the envy of my friends.” “Home Now” continues that need for complete devotion with a more suspenseful and antagonistic vibe. The absolute urgency and dependency in the springy chorus—“And to make it real / I need to have you here . . . It can’t be sincere / Unless you spend time here / I need to see you”—is harrowing. As for closer “Dark Blue,” it’s ingeniously bare, seductive, ominous, emotional, and utterly captivating, with a gorgeously gloomy hook (“And it’s too bad / You’re so sad / I wish you could have had what I had / And it’s so sad / It’s too bad / Maybe I can make you feel better) that destroys you. The brief bridge—“Unlike you / I had it easy / You’re dark blue / Stained from previous days” – is the inventively eerie icing on the cake, and the hidden bonus composition (an piano-and-strings reprise of “Too Late” by Mike Garson and Paul Buckmaster) further proves how striving, philosophical, and articulate Return of Saturn is.
For many fans, Tragic Kingdom is the definitive No Doubt album, and for many solid reasons. It’s wide-ranging, entertaining, and very nostalgic. It’s a truly great album that represents major artistic growth. But, when push comes to shove, it’s this fourth LP that encapsulates the quartet at the height of the prowess. Specifically, it flows better than any of its siblings, contains more innovative structures and instrumentation, and most importantly, sees Stefani reach a new level of bravery, self-awareness, and poise as a singer and songwriter. In that way, then, it’s her version of Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and twenty years later, it continues to reward repeated returns.
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