The other day, when I was walking down the street, I saw a poster for Kevin James’ upcoming film, Here Comes the Boom. My first thought was, “Really?” At this point, I’m sure that James had made millions from his various movie and TV roles; he didn’t need to make that movie. Yet, something compels him to make mediocre crowd-pleaser after mediocre crowd-pleaser. Nobody is begging for a new Kevin James flick, yet one still exists.
On the other hand, fans of No Doubt have been clamouring for a new album for 11 years. But similarly to Here Comes the Boom, Push and Shove didn’t need to happen. Lead singer Gwen Stefani is obviously an international pop superstar and fashion icon, but the other members of the band have done well for themselves too. Bassist Tony Kanal has gone into songwriting and producing. Drummer Adrian Young has become a prolific session musician. Guitarist Tom Dumont hasn’t been super-busy since Rock Steady was released back in 2001, but he did produce an album, and he has an electronic side project. The only reason Push and Shove happened was because the band really, really wanted to get back together and do it for the love of making music with each other.
The problem is that pouring love into a project doesn’t guarantee quality, and that’s where Push and Shove has another similarity to Kevin James movies. I’m sure James loves what he does, but at this point, he’s the king of cinematic mediocrity. And I’m sure No Doubt loves what they do, but Push and Shove is disappointing and mediocre in the extreme, not good enough or bad enough to be interesting. However, unlike Kevin James movies, it had the potential to be interesting, to be something truly special, which makes it all the more disappointing.
There’s quite a sharp division in No Doubt’s fanbase between those who prefer No Doubt’s earlier output and those who enjoy the poppier direction they took with Rock Steady. I count myself in the former group, but I acknowledge that Rock Steady worked on some level. On that record, the band let themselves be prodded and molded by a bevy of producers so that each track had its own unique sound. Some of the experiments were miserable failures, like the electro-pop tune “In My Head,” but others worked surprisingly well, like the vaguely industrial “Detective.”
On Push and Shove, however, the band worked almost entirely with one producer, Mark “Spike” Stent, perhaps in an attempt to give the album a unified sound. And to be fair, the album does succeed in that regard. But Stent is an overzealous producer, and the band doesn’t seem as ready to be prodded and molded this time around; the album sounds like a compromise resulting from a fight over how “produced” the album should sound, and in the end, neither side won. The production isn’t crisp enough for radio pop, but it’s too thick for the songs to rock. It’s a flat, generic mess of heavy synths, processed strings and horns, unnecessary vocal effects, backgrounded drums, and muted guitars. The album’s heavy use of reverb sounds downright anachronistic, harkening back to the eighties’ obsession with echo effects.
Look, nobody was expecting the band to record anything as raw as “Sixteen” or “Comforting Lie” for this album. But Stent seems to have been convinced that he needed to eradicate any traces of rock from the band’s sound. If No Doubt had wanted to make a new-wave/two-tone-ska record, they very well could have done so. Take out the heavier tracks from Return of Saturn, replace them with b-sides like “You’re So Foxy” and “Beauty Contest,” and that’s basically what you have. If you imagine Push and Shove without all the unnecessary production, that’s more or less what it would sound like, although more upbeat. It’s no coincidence that the band sounds their best when Stent just gets out of the way and lets them do their thing. In the final two minutes of the closing track, “Dreaming the Same Dream,” Tom Dumont apes Alex Lifeson’s shimmering guitars, Tony Kanal attacks his bass with Geddy Lee’s ferocity, and Adrian Young throws in some Neil Peart-esque fills and rhythms. The band comes off sounding like a pretty kickass group of Rush imitators, which is actually a good thing. On “One More Summer,” the band delivers some crisp new wave, and “Sparkle,” the best track on the album, recalls No Doubt’s past with its prominent horns.
I emphasize the production as the root of this album’s problems because the rest of it is actually quite solid. Musicianship has never been a problem with No Doubt. Kanal knows how to anchor a track with his fretwork, and unlike on Rock Steady, Young has actually been allowed to play his kit; you can tell he uses a lot of intricate rhythms (when you can hear them through the synths). The lyrics are predictably banal, but they’re miles better than the platitudes of Rock Steady. (If you were hoping that Stefani would again get depressed, dye her hair pink, and read Sylvia Plath, then you’re out of luck.) Only the extended celestial metaphor of “Gravity” is distractingly bad; the rest of the lyrics do their job of giving Stefani words to sing while stuff happens in the background.
Still, none of that is enough to overcome how overproduced this album is. Stent has been in the biz for a while; he should know better than to attempt to turn a band with a love of ska and new wave into a late 80’s pop group. In the end, Push and Shove is not only a gigantic disappointment, but also an object lesson in the dangers of forcing a unified sound on an album instead of crafting individual songs. Worse still, the band let this happen. Eclecticism is one of No Doubt’s assets. This is a band that has recorded everything from punk to disco to funk to grunge. I never used to be able to describe No Doubt’s sound in a single sentence. Now I can: they sound like a band that just gave up.