Album: Return of Saturn
Artist: No Doubt
Released: April 11th, 2000
Highlights: Ex-Girlfriend, Simple Kind of Life, Bathwater, New
For a while during the first half the 90s, it seemed like No Doubt was going to be that decade’s version of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The comparison may seem absurd at first, but the parallels are actually plentiful. For starters, these were two Californian bands of mostly white youngsters who found the identity of their sound in the merging between rock and a rhythm of black origins: funk for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and ska for No Doubt. In addition, rather than approaching that mixture with seriousness, the bands thrived in employing a silly tone in their music. It is not, of course, that they lacked respect for the genres they were drinking from; much to the contrary, there was genuine admiration displayed in what they were doing. But youthful energy got the better of them and their output came off as a bit foolish.
To accentuate the comparison, in both cases the bands were able to make it out of that initial cocoon to showcase a more mature form. While the Red Hot Chili Peppers did so with their “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, No Doubt broke through on the strength of “Tragic Kingdom”, their 1995 album. A key difference, however, was that if the former group found success with the same creative nucleus that had made four albums, the moment of revelation for No Doubt came when Eric Stefani, the brain of the band until that point, opted to get out of the picture, leaving the task of steering the ship to somebody else. And although, in a way, most of the members rose to the challenge and carried the load, it was his sister, Gwen, who stepped into the spotlight more firmly.
“Tragic Kingdom” had been a bit of an unexpected hit. A band that had, up to that point, published two commercially failed records and almost been dropped by their label as a consequence was trying to give it another go under the guidance of an inexperienced leader. However, not only did No Doubt perform the tracks as if their lives depended on it, because they did, but the band also matured and wrote with the same sense of urgency. The time to grow up, even if ever so slightly, had arrived, and the four members pulled through it, with an occasional hand or two provided by their former leader.
As the follow-up to that pivotal work, “Return of Saturn” does not really sound like it was made with blood, sweat, and tears. “Tragic Kingdom” was incredibly well written, but it was rough around the edges, showing a band on the verge of stardom; comparatively, “Return of Saturn” is much sleeker. This is by all means the creation of a band that had succeeded and, as a consequence, gained access to the recording company’s vault that paved the way to better production and greater aspirations. Sure, there was already plenty of pop to be found in “Tragic Kingdom”, as it exhibited the traditional brand of accessible, catchy, and energetic alternative rock that No Doubt would become known for. But “Return of Saturn” is a bigger pop statement. It is a work put together by people who had already made it and were thereby able to look at the process of creation like well-versed professionals.
It is a description that makes “Return of Saturn” sound like it was easy to birth, but evidence truthfully points in the opposite direction. A whopping five years actually separate the two albums: a dangerously large interval that had already killed the seemingly unstoppable momentum of other bands, like Elastica and The Stone Roses, and one in which No Doubt faced plenty of creative obstacles. As such, even if generally feeling like pop rock bliss composed by experts at the craft, “Return of Saturn” has undertones that indicate it is the product of a crisis, with the one that was being faced by Gwen Stefani being in most evidence; a natural consequence of the fact she was the leader of the group and the person responsible for writing lyrics.
The name of the album refers to the astrological phenomenon that is believed to hit those that near the age of 30, with the specified planet coming back to the point where it was on the person’s date of birth and that human having to face the responsibilities of adult life. For Stefani, who was around that age when much of the record was made, the crisis brought by Saturn seems to be one related to love and marriage. Throughout the work, almost not a tune goes by without her longing for what she sees as true love. Some songs, like “Simple Kind of Life” (an orchestrated power ballad with lo-fi treatment) or “Marry Me” (a passable loose ska jam), dive fully into that topic. Meanwhile, others deal with marginal feelings related to that subject; the stop-and-start punk of “Ex-Girlfriend”, for example, has Gwen wishing for the end of empty relationships. And a number of tunes approach matters that are part of the cauldron of emotions that boil up as one gets older: lusting for those that should be forgotten (“Bathwater”), envying youth (“Staring Problem”), and even mortality itself (“Six Feet Under”).
It is, fortunately and naturally, a far cry from the material of their first two albums. And even though the subjects are neither rebellious nor electrifying, not only are they true and well-handled, but No Doubt also does not forget the value energy has for their music. “Ex-Girlfriend”, “Six Feet Under”, and “New” flirt with the good kind of pop punk; “Artificial Sweetener” bangs in distortion aided by a keyboard that lends the track a new wave feeling; and “Bathwater” as well as “Staring Problem” recall the group’s early days by incorporating brass into the racket, even if the latter exaggerates on the silliness. “Return of Saturn”, however, is a record of ballads, and it is in them that its biggest weaknesses can be found, for although “Simple Kind of Life” more than proves the band can write a slower tune very well, that consistency is not kept throughout the tracks.
The first issue comes in the album’s sequencing itself, as the rockers are more prominently present on the first half while the ballads appear mostly on the second; given “Return of Saturn” has one hour of music, this imbalance causes it to drag towards the end. Secondly, nearly all of the slower songs follow the same pattern: jangled guitars or muffled punk riffs on calmer verses with loud emotional explosions on the choruses. It occasionally works, as it does in “Too Late”, and the melodies are generally good, but the fact the best two ballads here (“Simple Kind of Life” and “Magic’s in the Makeup”) do not use that formula is quite revealing of how a leaner or perhaps more varied approach to them would have done “Return of Saturn” some good. Due to these misses and a set of energetic tracks that show some punctual inconsistencies, “Return of Saturn” is not quite as good as its predecessor. Nevertheless, its strength cannot be denied, and No Doubt’s first record after finally breaking through is an enjoyable portrayal of how success does not make one immune to problems: be them creative or personal.