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No Doubt: Future Tense?

Now that the rock band has emerged from a rocky hiatus with "Return of Saturn", only Gwen Stefani's internal conflicts still rage.

There's a war being waged for Gwen Stefani's soul. On one shoulder sits Suzy Homemaker. On the other, Suzi Quatro.

The rocker in Stefani seems to be winning out over the family gal by an Orange County mile. Which doesn't mean that No Doubt's new album, Return of Saturn, isn't ringed with massive layers of doubt about the domestic road not taken. ''Who will be the one to marry me?'' she asks in the album's dreamy centerpiece track. In ''Simple Kind of Life,'' Stefani not only daydreams about giving up show business for a more tranquil station in life, she even imagines the birth-control screwup that might take her away from all this careerism. ''I always thought I'd be a mom/Sometimes I wish for a mistake.../You seem like you'd be a good dad.''

No need to buy her off-again, on-again significant other, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, a copy of Dr. Spock just yet, though: This is fantasy, she insists. ''When I was 21, I was ready to get married. Girls are always thinking of that. We're programmed,'' Stefani explains. ''But I have to clarify this, because everybody gets it wrong. 'Marry Me' is not about the fact that I want to get married. I don't want people to think, 'Oh, she's turning 30 and getting moody and wants to settle down!' It's more about how I used to think that's all I ever wanted, and the confusion of realizing that I am more faithful to my freedom than I ever thought I could be. And that's scary.''

So she's Just a Career Girl after all. And what a career: Probably no band that ever started off with as unremarkable a debut as 1992's ho-hum ska-fest No Doubt has ever gone on to craft a follow-up as successful as 1995's Tragic Kingdom...or an album as good as Return of Saturn, which, even as we don't speak, is bringing round a lot of formerly dismissive critics. You don't even have to be having an early midlife crisis to succumb, though it helps. For all of the quartet's new-wave revivalism, the disc fits squarely within rock's grand tradition of confessional singer-songwriter platters, meaning there are plenty more ante-upping admissions of insecurity, confusion, and mortal anxiety where those delusions of familial bliss came from.

The ante that Interscope Records might prefer to see upped is the 10-times-platinum figure the peppy Tragic Kingdom managed in America (15 million internationally). Rarely does that kind of commercial lightning strike twice—''Never,'' guitarist Tom Dumont corrects us—but if you press the band, they'll admit selling half that many would be affirming enough. They've had a good enough start, selling 202,000 copies the first week out, and becoming the first female-fronted band to make a significant impact on alt-rock radio in well over a year. But even the modest goal of halving their previous success may stand as a challenge in the ever-younger-skewing pop climate into which No Doubt step, banging out anthems about grown-up ''growing pains,'' taking on the concerns of the VH1 demographic in a total TRL world. And that's scary.

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