No Doubt, 'Return of Saturn' (Interscope Records)

No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom was one of the first albums I ever purchased with my own money. I was 13 years old and a freshman in high school, going through all the social confusions and small tragedies that every young teenager faces. “Just a Girl,” “Don't Speak” and “Sixteen” were in heavy radio rotation, and I really related to them. Five years later, my CD collection has grown to about 50, and No Doubt is finally back with a new album called Return of Saturn (out Tuesday). One of the benefits of writing this review is that I got to test out the new album for free. But what I learned is that it would have been worth paying the $18. Just as I have grown up, so has No Doubt. The songs on Return of Saturn—especially “Ex-Girlfriend,” “Bathwater,” “Six Feet Under,” “Artificial Sweetener” and “Suspension Without Suspense”—still seem connected to my life. That fact was never clearer than the first time I heard “Ex-Girlfriend.” I had broken up with my own boyfriend a month before, and as Gwen Stefani sang, it was as if she was reading my mind. The song is about that time in the middle, between being together and being totally over it. Your heart starts racing every time you see him or hear his name. And it's even worse when you see or hear about him being with someone else. I don't think there is anyone who hasn't experienced the frustration and pain of a breakup, and No Doubt does an awesome job of getting to its audience with this one. But “Bathwater” is my favorite song. It has a brassy 1950s sound that reminds me of girls in black-and-white saddle shoes dancing around in full dresses down past their knees. It's a really fun song, and yet Stefani's happy/sad voice suggests all the mixed feelings of good girls who always choose bad boys and then try to change them. There is some weird stuff going on in “Six Feet Under”—some sort of video-game/ spaceship sound—and that's an example of one of the things that is really cool about this album: each song has its own approach, and the changes keep your attention focused on what the music and lyrics are trying to communicate. In using really oddball sounds, “Six Feet Under” questions the meaning behind our way of life by presenting a confused outlook on our commonest everyday activities. The lyrics to “Artificial Sweetener” include a reference to the “return of Saturn” and provide some insight into the theme of the album. The song makes us stop and think about the choices we make in life, about who we really are and if we are true to ourselves and others around us. And what does the title Return of Saturn signify? That it takes the planet Saturn 29 years to revolve completely around the sun and that it took Gwen almost exactly that long to learn the important things about her life. I'm just grateful it didn't take any more than five years for the Return of Stefani (and No Doubt) to share some of those things with us.

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