Are blond chicks the only good things topping the charts nowadays? Rock sucks, rap blows, Dave Matthews apparently ate all his talent in a wicked burst of the munchies — these are frightening times. How lucky, then, that Gwen Stefani didn’t go all Britney on us after churning out her second most significant release of the year, son Kingston, back in May. Instead, she delivered a doozy of an afterbirth: “The Sweet Escape,” Stefani’s second solo LP and the gaudiest, liveliest, most disco-ballsy album of the year.
No Doubters can kvetch ’till they collapse, but Stefani ain’t hollering back, though her hot South-Asian band mate produced a troika of dance tracks on “Escape” so ’80’s they make Soft Cell sound positively spare. On “4 in the Morning,” sky-high synth and a starlit piano line nibble around Stefani’s layer cake of a voice, while on “Fluorescent,” she channels her inner Prince for a busy, bursting track that Pro-Tools everything from violins to PVC pipes.
Thankfully, her copious lyrics preclude any semblance of melisma and dominate even the most off-the-wall backbeat. On “Yummy,” Stefani compares sex to eating far more handsomely than Fergie, and with an eye for calories too (“Look, I’m diet drama / Wanna spend the night / Don’t bring pajamas”). Produced by the Neptunes, the skittering, diminutive beat eventually descends into a cacophony of clanging metal and wheezing drills, the most spot-on aural metaphor for rough sex since “Whole Lotta Love.”
Eighties indulgences and Zeppelin-esque experiments aside, the insta-party title track will be the “Hollaback”-sized, gay-club smash of spring ’07. Flashily retro yet thoroughly modern (and produced by Akon — what!?), “The Sweet Escape” throws around catchy hooks like whipped cream in a pie fight: “If I could escape/ And recreate a place that’s my own world/ And I could be your favorite girl (forever)/ Perfectly together/ Tell me boy now wouldn’t that be sweet?” You might as well memorize it now, because we’ll all be singing along soon enough.
Admittedly, the lederhosen-clad first single “Wind It Up” is a monstrosity of yodeling “Sound of Music” rips, which makes its status as lead single feel like a yak leading a flock of swans. Too embarrassing for radio and lacking even a hint of a hummable melody, “Wind It Up” can’t even pull off charmingly odd, what with Stefani’s inexplicably stilted lyrics (“I guess that they are slow/ So they should leave the room/ This beat is for the clubs/ And cars that go”), which she robotically raps over the Neptunes’ clunky beat. The fact that it’s currently a top-10 hit speaks more to Stefani’s enormous popularity than anything redeeming about the song itself — the girl could sing klezmer and it would still go platinum.
It’s a shame, because Stefani doesn’t need to spank us with the bizarre paddle in order to innovate — spin “Bubble Pop Electric” from her 2004 masterpiece “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.,” resurrected here in part on “Now That You Got It,” for proof. On the limb-thrashingly energetic song, she sends her man to boot camp, finally throwing “that dog a bone” once he learns to call her ma’am. Similarly, “Don’t Get It Twisted” recalls “Danger Zone” (another standout from “L.A.M.B.”), as Stefani attempts to diagnose her love issues as a medical problem. The song’s slick trumpet section even recalls her ska-tastic roots, though the sparse, elastic beat keeps it firmly planted in hip-hop territory.
Maybe she’s just lucky, but Stefani is one of the few pop stars who soars when she should plateau, who’s survived countless image mash-ups and sonic debauchery, who’s established a Madonna-sized celebrity without any pretension, controversy or Kabbalah. “The Sweet Escape” isn’t by any means her best album — her No Doubt work was far more powerful, and her first solo album was much more creative — but it certainly feels like her least calculated work in some time. Cobbled together from “L.A.M.B.” out-takes, overdubbed between breast-feeding sessions, strange and fun and full of yodeling Harajuku girls, “The Sweet Escape” nevertheless fills that aching pop void that all the Fergies and Nelly Furtados of the world just can’t touch.
“The Sweet Escape”