In the single that made No Doubt's reputation, Gwen Stefani batted her eyes and cooed that she was "Just a Girl."
Of course, her "little ol' me" routine was steeped in sarcasm -- at its heart, the song was a gripe about being treated as an inferior by boys -- but even so, her choice of words was significant. No matter how much that or any of the other songs on No Doubt's breakthrough second album, "Tragic Kingdom," might have flirted with feminism, there was something vaguely tomboyish about Stefani's attitude. She may not have been "just" a girl, but she was definitely girlish in her energy, attitude and enthusiasm.
But it's been five years since "Tragic Kingdom" was unleashed, and Stefani has done a lot of growing up along the way. She became famous, she got in a well-publicized relationship with another rock star (Gavin Rossdale of Bush). She turned 30. Suddenly, it seemed time to put aside girlish things.
Maybe that's why "Return of Saturn" (Trauma/Interscope 069490441), arriving in stores today, finds Stefani shifting her focus to more womanly matters. She's taking stock, looking back at her mistakes and wondering what she wants for the future -- hardly childish concerns.
So where girls may just want to have fun, what Stefani wants is a husband and kids, and she goes on at length about it. There's "Simple Kind of Life," in which she sings of longing wistfully for "a simple man/So I could be his wife," There's "Six Feet Under," a cycle-of-life song that speaks of "Burying my grandma/Then [giving] birth to my daughter." Need we even go into "Marry Me"?
Even the music seems more grown-up. Gone are the skate-punk ravers guaranteed to set a mosh pit in motion; on "Return of Saturn," the closest the band gets to hard-and-fast is "New," more like up-tempo Police than classic punk. More typical is "Simple Kind of Life," which contrasts the edge within the band's sound against the sweetness of the melody, and the gentleness of Stefani's delivery.
Nor is the band as wedded to the pumped-up ska grooves of older hits such as "Spiderwebs." Although "Bathwater" boasts a certain amount of braying horns and skanking after-beats, the grooves are more likely to offer a subdued reggae-style pulse, as on the dreamy "Magic's in the Makeup."
How all this will go over with the ska kids who made up No Doubt's original constituency is hard to say. Obviously, they've aged along with Stefani and the boys, but does that mean they, too, have gone from watching MTV's "Total Request Live" to tuning into "The View"? Maybe.
But it's hard not to suspect that many will hear Stefani ask, in "Bathwater": "Why do the good girls always want the bad boys?" and snicker, "Well, duh -- 'cos they're more fun."
"Return of Saturn" may not be more fun than "Tragic Kingdom," but it is smarter, more tuneful and a lot more consistent. And if that makes it better suited for sitting and listening than for dancing and partying, well, heck -- that's just how it is with us old folks.
Return of Saturn
Sun score: ***