Shattered love. Blossoming love.
That’s the stark thematic contrast found on Gwen Stefani’s first solo album in a decade, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. In one old-school, Madonna-like pop song after another, Stefani unpacks the heartbreak and disorientation she experienced in the wake of her divorce from Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale after 13 years of marriage (upon discovering his affair with the family nanny). Mingled amid those mournful, melancholy musings are songs about falling for fellow Voice coach and country crooner Blake Shelton.
Never mind that Shelton’s marriage to country star Miranda Lambert recently dissolved amid acrimonious allegations of cheating. And that’s not ancillary (read: gossipy) information here. It’s merely a sobering reality that’s difficult to push out of your mind while listening to often-fragile Gwen getting drunk on the joys of a fresh love.
“Used to Love You” navigates Ms. Stefani’s pain upon discovering that her husband had been cheating on her. “I thought I was the best thing that ever happened to you,” she unloads. “I thought you loved me the most.” Later she says of Rossdale’s choices, “You thought/There were no boundaries/ … I guess nobody taught you/Nobody taught you how to love.” Similarly, “Red Flag” laments not seeing warning signs in her marriage and recognizing them for what they were. “Naughty” alludes to catching her husband in his infidelity, after which she tells him, “No matter how hard you try, you’re never washing out the stain/Because you’re addicted, so addicted to the shame.”
“Me Without You,” then, is a post-divorce empowerment anthem that explores Gwen’s journey to rediscover herself (“I can finally be myself, be myself/ … I forgot how good it felt, good it felt”), while “Make Me Like You” includes honest lyrics describing her hesitancy to plunge into a new relationship (“I really like you, but I’m so scared/Why’d you have to go and make me like you?”). And there’s more introspection on “Truth,” where the singer ponders how people might respond to news of her new relationship (“I really don’t wanna embarrass myself/And no one’s gonna believe me, not even myself/And they’re all gonna say I’m rebounding”). “Asking for It” asks if her new man is willing to accept her, weaknesses and all (“Are you sure you wanna love me?/ … I know that it’s a lot to handle me/ But it, it is, but it is what it is/It’s all a part of my broken history”).
Grief, meanwhile, loiters precariously close to bitterness on “Used to Love You” as Gwen Stefani admits, “I don’t know why I cry/But I think it’s ’cause I remembered for the first time/Since I hated you/That I used to love you.”
By today’s standards—even as they’re defined by yet another popular Voice judge, Adam Levine—Stefani never ventures too far into explicit naughtiness. Still, her playfully suggestive lyrics are hardly mysterious in their sexual meanings, either. “Misery” proclaims, “You’re like drugs, you’re like drugs to me,” then practically begs a man to come over for a tryst (“So put me out of my misery/Hurry up, come see me/ … At the door/I’m thinking things I never thought before/Like what your love would taste like/Give me more”).
More of the same fills “Your My Favorite” (“The way you kissed me wasn’t typical/Take me out of my body, something spiritual/Think I need seconds, maybe thirds or fourths”). Still more smooching fans physical flames on “Where Would I Be?” and “Make Me Like You.” “Send Me a Picture” flirtatiously, suggestively pleads, “Send me a picture right now,” one with “no filter” and one that will “show me what you’re doing, boy.”
Stefani’s description of what truth is (on “Truth”) makes it all about emotion as she equates certainty with feelings (“So this is what the truth feels like/ … And I’m feeling it, I’m feeling it/Something about this just feels so right, alright”). Guest contributor Fetty Wap defines a successful romantic relationship in materialistic terms on “Asking for It” (“Baby, let’s fill the swimming pool with money/Make it splash in, yeah, baby”).
Gwen also proclaims that she’s seen and done it all, including drugs (“Shook it, stirred it, smoked it/More than I can count”).
By the time I finished listening to This Is What the Truth Feels Like, I felt like a protective older brother reacting to news that his little sis was being manhandled by life’s big baddies. On “Rare,” Gwen Stefani vulnerably admits, “I am broken, I am insecure/Complicated, oh yeah, that’s for sure/I feel worthless, I’ve been hurt so bad/I get nervous that you won’t love me back.”
That’s a precarious precipice, for sure. And it’s like she’s not even aware of the danger. Because when she’s not articulating the agony her ex-husband put her through, she’s all in—both emotionally and, it would seem, physically, too—for the new guy she herself has admitted will be seen as her “rebound.”
Stefani insists that she can feel the truth of her latest relationship, and she desperately wants to believe it will be the real deal this time around. But feelings are flawed barometers of solid substances such as truth—both for pop stars like Gwen Stefani and for all of the rest of us who internalize the familiar-but-still-problematic philosophy she espouses.
If it feels so right, it can’t be wrong, she gushes.
And while one would hope that such a seasoned artist would have been through enough to recognize the peril of capitulating to that old lie … perhaps hope is not always the best strategy.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.