Although No Doubt first hit with ”Just a Girl,” Gwen Stefani was never just anything. From the start, she’s been one of our most style-conscious pop stars, someone who seems to love spending as much as singing. Her first outside-band project only strengthens that impression. Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is like one of those au courant retail magazines that resembles a catalog more than an old-fashioned collection of, say, articles.
The lineup of producers alone — Dr. Dre, Jam and Lewis, Andre 3000, the Neptunes, Dallas Austin — is something out of a magalog for the music business: the place where you can purchase the best money can buy. With them, each song becomes akin to a pricey retro fashion blurb. On ”Crash,” Stefani’s an old-school, gold-chained rapper. On ”Luxurious,” she’s a slow-jam R&B babydoll. On ”Hollaback Girl,” she’s a streetwise clubber. During ”Cool” and ”The Real Thing,” she’s a glacial ’80s synthpop zombie. In the cartoonish, Broadway-musical funk of ”Bubble Pop Electric,” she gets to go on a dream date with Andre 3000, who appears as ”Johnny Vulture.”
Stefani’s grown-Kewpie-doll voice adapts to each setting, and to their credit, the producers push themselves to new levels. R&B kingpin Austin is behind the new-wave facsimile ”Cool,” for instance, while the Neptunes uncharacteristically stomp like Queen in ”Hollaback Girl.” But the ostentatiousness of it all grows irritating. Products are plugged shamelessly (”Harajuku Girls,” a teeth-gnashingly cutesy tribute to Tokyo’s trendy fashion district, includes a nod to Stefani’s clothing line, L.A.M.B.). Love is compared to Egyptian cotton (”Luxurious”). Fiddler on the Roof’s ”If I Were a Rich Man” is used, awkwardly and unironically, as the basis for ”Rich Girl,” in which Stefani dreams of cash flow and Vivienne Westwood products. Stefani worries about living up to her ”million-dollar contract” in ”What You Waiting For?” (whose clipped stomp makes for one of the album’s undeniable highs). Each extravagant, overstuffed track feels as if it had been conceived as a mega-budget music video, not a song.
How appropriate, since expensive videos were hallmarks of the ’80s and the album is intended to salute the music of Stefani’s Reagan-era youth. (Her lyrics are embarrassingly high school; the glaring exception, the pouty ”Danger Zone,” could easily be interpreted as her tongue-lashing of hubby Gavin Rossdale after news broke that he had fathered a child pre-Gwen.) Love luxuriates in a moment when pop and big money fed off each other. Yet that mentality has never seemed more obsolete and self-absorbed than it does now. In a time of war, economic ills, and general anxiety, it’s easy to see the appeal in re-creating a simpler era. But is the answer a magalog you can dance to?