It’s often said that the best music is timeless. Some of the worst songs can reach the top of charts (*cough* “Thong Song” *cough*), but they ultimately disappear in a puff of smoke as if they had never existed in the first place. Good music has longevity. It’s the kind of music that speaks to the masses, that gets passed down from generation to generation.
No Doubt’s Return of Saturn, released in 2000, is the very antithesis of that kind of music. Instead of speaking to the masses, it engages in introspection. The music is raw and at times aggressive, which can be alienating. It can’t even be considered a compendium of the of the turn of the millennium’s zeitgeist, to be examined later for historical purposes; its sound is defiantly anachronistic, falling somewhere between new wave and post-grunge: too old to be modern, too young to be retro.
For those reasons, Return of Saturn won’t be what endures decades from now once No Doubt has stopped making music. The band will instead be remembered for hits like “Just A Girl” and “Hey Baby.” Unfortunately, posterity will overlook this gem of an album, its subject matter a rarity in popular music: an embarrassingly honest series of confessions about life and love from a mildly depressed woman on the cusp of her thirties.
Return of Saturn is perhaps the black sheep of No Doubt’s records. It’s by far the most focused, toning down the restless eclecticism that characterizes their other albums. Its lyrics are frank and raw, all imbued with fear, desperation, or self-loathing. It’s the closest thing to a “rock” album that No Doubt has ever recorded.
And boy, does it rock hard. Drummer Adrian Young pounds his snares and toms furiously, while Tony Kanal’s bass booms. Guitarist Tom Dumont barges through like a tornado, unleashing a barrage of distortion in his wake. However, singer and lyricist Gwen Stefani’s voice is tamer and less aggressive that it had ever been up until that time. The energy is still there, but the fight is not, as if she truly believes her depressing words. That’s what makes Return of Saturn an interesting album. It’s not just the words she sings that matter; it’s the way she sings them. Rationally, the listener knows that Stefani was a wildly successful rock star, even when the album first came out. But she imbues her voice with such honesty that one can’t help but get sucked into her world, and rather than overproducing and auto-tuning her vocals into oblivion, producer Glen Ballard wisely leaves her voice largely untouched, the dips, croaks, and stray notes contributing to the feeling that the songs are pages lifted directly from her diary.
What a strange – and at times, disturbing – diary it is. Stefani portrays herself as insecure, indecisive – pathetic, even. She pulls no punches, wallowing in pure self-loathing in “Artificial Sweetener” and “Comforting Lie.” What makes this self-flagellation work – and what makes the rest of the album work – is that the music complements the lyrics. Those two tracks chug along in a minor key under a wall of distorted guitars. They’re the closest thing to heavy metal that No Doubt has ever recorded.
However, Return of Saturn isn’t a relentless rock assault. More so than on any of their albums, No Doubt indulges in mid-tempo balladry on this record, albeit with a kind of rock edge that isn’t present on their other works. The most prominent of these ballads is the single “Simple Kind of Life,” another example of Stefani’s diary-entry lyrical style. The lyrics are a series of half-formed thoughts about her wishing to settle down and start a family. There’s so much dead space between them that Kanal must play elaborate – and impressive – bass licks to fill the gaps. Heck, Stefani doesn’t even bother rhyming half the time – a sample lyric: “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.” You read that right: about a decade ago, Stefani was wishing that her birth control would fail. Yikes. (And you thought the “imaginary” Harajuku Girls were the nuttiest thing about her.)
That’s perhaps why listening to Return of Saturn today borders on anachronistic. The album portrays Stefani’s life in the years leading up to the new millennium. Now, Stefani has a husband and two kids, the very kind of life she wished for in the song. (Though whether or not her life is actually “simple” now is a matter of debate, considering that she’s juggling a family, a band, a fashion line, and charitable endeavours.) Nowadays, when No Doubt performs “Simple Kind of Life” live and Stefani sings the lyric quoted above, the crowd goes wild, cheering her motherhood. None of this album’s lyrical content is really applicable to her life anymore. How then can Return of Saturn have any value to modern music fans? Well, there’s some impressive musicianship on the record, but to address the setup of the question directly, the themes that Stefani sings about are universal. As long as the Earth exists, people will fall in love, people will feel insecure, and people will experience heartbreak. Songs like “Simple Kind of Life” and “Marry Me” still resonate today because there so many people who long for companionship and who want to settle down. You’d think that songs about getting married and having kids would be more popular, considering how closely they hew to the idea of the American Dream. But they’re inexplicably rare in pop music, which makes “Simple Kind of Life” and “Marry Me” all the more essential. Other songs on the album touch on the idea of personal identity. “Magic’s in the Makeup,” which in another band’s hands could sound like another lame I’m-a-celebrity-woe-is-me whine-fest, works because it focuses squarely on Stefani’s feelings instead of treating fame like a fate worse than death. Listeners can relate the feelings expressed in the song; who hasn’t at some point dissembled to others or experienced an identity crisis?
Up until now, I’ve focused mainly on Return of Saturn’s lyrical content, and with good reason; there’s a lot to be said about what Gwen Stefani sings. But I’d also like to discuss other aspects of the album, in particular, its musical style – or more appropriately, its musical styles. As focused as the album is, it still covers a lot of sonic ground. While staying firmly with the realm of rock, it hops from subgenre to subgenre as often as it switches tracks. The first four songs on the album illustrate this perfectly. You can credit opening track “Ex-Girlfriend” for inventing the genre of flamenco punk-rap – subdued rapped verses, heavy hooks and bridges, and softly strummed interludes. That’s followed up by a standard rock ballad in “Simple Kind of Life.” Next comes “Bathwater,” a goofy song about being in love with a bad boy, and probably the first cabaret-metal piece since Queen’s “Killer Queen.” After that comes “Six Feet Under,” a new wave song about the cycle of life and death. (And Stefani sings about birth control in that one too. A lot.)
Elsewhere on the album, the band goes back to their ska punk roots on “Staring Problem,” which contains one of the most infectious choruses ever penned: “S-T-A-R-I-N-G / I can’t stop staring.” “New” is, as its title suggests, a new wave song (with some pretty insane drum work), and “Too Late” is a love ballad featuring triumphant horns. “Marry Me” sees No Doubt flirting with reggae, while the band even attempts a quasi-power-ballad with “Suspension Without Suspense.”
But No Doubt really shines on the album’s final two tracks. The first, “Home Now,” is about Stefani’s feelings of helplessness in attempting to maintain a long-distance relationship, a subject mirrored in the song’s opening with the sounds of an airport lounge. Stylistically, its jazzy alt-rock feel makes it sound like it could have been an Incubus b-side with horns. As much as Stefani shows off her vocal prowess with some incredible octave jumps in the bridge, this is really the rest of the band’s song. Kanal plays a snaking bass line throughout the verses, but when the bridge hits, he switches to a complex pattern with shifting rhythms. Dumont plays Latin-inflected guitar fills throughout the song, little flourishes that give the piece character. But he truly shows his skill in the coda, where he duels back and forth with a weaving trumpet line. The song’s quiet MVP is drummer Adrian Young, who plays about a half dozen different drum patterns over its duration, from almost tribal-sounding tom-based patterns in the intro to complicated but tasteful hi-hat rhythms in the bridge.
The album closes with “Dark Blue,” which is, in a way, the album’s black sheep. All throughout Return of Saturn, Stefani’s lyrics are direct, naked, unadorned. But “Dark Blue” is cryptic, deliberately obscuring its subject matter. (The best guess is that it’s about Stefani helping now-husband Gavin Rossdale overcome dependence on drugs.) It’s a surprisingly dark song for a band who’s known for poppy anthems like “Sunday Morning” and “Spiderwebs.” The verses are supported mainly by a stark drum and bass, joined by a barely audible guitar halfway through, while the choruses have an almost ethereal quality, complete with dreamlike keyboard flourishes. Throughout the song, lone distorted guitars pop in and out, playing with pitch-bending effects. It’s a simple song, but it’s one of No Doubt’s best, and also their most haunting.
Thus, the album ends with what is probably its least relatable track. “Dark Blue” is at best intensely personal and at worst absolutely impenetrable. But its final few notes stay with the listener long after they have faded away, and he or she is left with the feeling of having gone on a cathartic journey by listening to Return to Saturn, feeling like a participant in a confession session with Gwen Stefani. It doesn’t matter if the music sounds dated. Life, love, fear, insecurity, helplessness, frustration – these themes are universal. And it’s that universality that makes Return of Saturn, at least for me, a timeless record.