There are many sides to Gwen Stefani. There’s the cute, happy pop queen. The cute, happy fashion designer. The cute, happy baby-mama. Okay, maybe she’s not exactly complicated, but she’s relentlessly likable, the fantasy of a funky golden girl. She’s so at ease with her bubbly image that she salutes The Sound of Music’s Julie Andrews in the video for ”Wind It Up,” the percolating first single from her second solo CD, The Sweet Escape. Like the von Trapp governess, Stefani is upbeat and can-do, the kind of woman who turns curtains into stylin’ uniforms for her Harajuku Girls.
But now, at 37, Stefani wants to create a more mature persona. Overall, The Sweet Escape has a surprisingly moody, lightly autobiographical feel. On half of the CD, she abandons the cheerleader funk of 2004’s smash Love. Angel. Music. Baby. for synth-heavy ’80s fare that recalls the melancholy new wave of Berlin. She even sheds a glistening tear in a recent publicity photo.
Stefani has revealed a serious side before — in 2000 with No Doubt, she dreamed of a ”Simple Kind of Life,” complete with Mr. Stefani and kids. Now she’s dealing with the aftershocks of getting everything she wanted. Mostly, she longs for truer marital intimacy (”We can be closer than sharing last names”). She calls pregnancy ”the most craziest s— ever” on ”Don’t Get It Twisted,” a hilarious electro-punk track about missing her period. And apparently she and husband Gavin Rossdale have their share of stupid fights. ”U Started It” is a snapshot of a passive-aggressive spat: ”I give in even though you started it/I know you’re right, you win, I don’t want any part of it.”
Ultimately, Stefani isn’t convincing as a dissatisfied diva. She laments a dying affair on the majestic power ballad ”Early Winter,” but her Orange County-girl voice doesn’t seem genuinely sad. And unable to suppress her party-starting nature (or her ambition for big hits) for long, she teams with heavyweights like the Neptunes for half a dozen hip-hop jams. The fuzzed-out ”Breakin’ Up” uses a bad cell-phone connection as a metaphor for a troubled relationship, and it’s as gratingly repetitious as those Verizon ads. Many of the rap songs are oddly hookless compared with the chant-along perfection of 2005 hit ”Hollaback Girl.”
An exception is the slinky ”Yummy,” which features a rap from Pharrell. Over a spare, undulating beat, Stefani utters funny come-ons until the sounds of industrial machinery unite in a rhythmic grind. Frothy and sonically adventurous, she’s back to her classic self. Stefani’s desire to grow is admirable, but fans aren’t finished with the cute, happy Gwen yet, and neither, really, is she.