In Brief: Still No Doubt’s best album by a long shot. It rocks, it’s diverse, and despite all the melodramatic breakup songs, it’s just plain fun.
As I approached the milestone of 750 reviews written, I was thinking of compiling a list of my favorite albums of the 1990s, but then I realized a few things:
1. I’ve already gushed about the vast majority of those favorites in other reviews.
2. Half the list would be youth-groupy stuff nobody cared about any more.
3. The other half would be fairly obvious mainstream stuff by bands like U2, Radiohead, Dave Matthews Band, and R.E.M. that I only came to appreciate well after the fact, so most of it doesn’t hold the same nostalgic value for me as it does for those who were actually into those bands at the time.
Still, there’s one album that became a favorite of mine early enough for me to remember it as an old favorite that I genuinely enjoyed while it was still the 20th century. I just barely got around to the point where I was willing to give it a chance in 1999, despite it being released in 1995 and annoying me greatly due to the overexposure of its singles during my first few years of college. That album would be No Doubt‘s Tragic Kingdom. I guess I just had to get over my misconceptions about “everyone else” liking the band and really sit down and give them a listen for myself. What I found was that, beyond their extremely addictive personality and their penchant for writing pop melodies you couldn’t get out of your head, they were actually quite clever and able to span several genres in their quest for the perfect pop/rock album. I hardly even knew what “ska” was at the time, but that’s what they had started out doing, and they had already drifted far enough from it by this point, while keeping the horns around for a little bit of Caribbean spice where needed. I didn’t know the difference, or necessarily care. I just liked the sonic surprises and unexpected melodic twists, and the way its happiest songs got me all pumped up while its saddest ones made me want to root for Gwen Stefani to get her heart un-broken by any means necessary. It’s an album that I can still go back to, a decade and a half later, and still find myself smiling from ear to ear pretty much all the way through it. That’s no small feat for an album that runs on the long-ish side as far as commercial rock music is concerned (14 tracks and nearly an hour), but that has a lot of goodies hidden within, even if one were to ignore the numerous massive hits that this album spawned.
What’s weird about Tragic Kingdom, at least when compared to the albums No Doubt released after it, is how much some of its non-singles can compel me to come back and listen to the record. That hasn’t been my experience with the long-awaited follow-up Return of Saturn, as much as I loved that album’s more successful tracks. It’s a really mixed bag. And then they hurriedly came up with Rock Steady right after that, which completely changed the band’s M.O., emphasizing their electronic, dance, and reggae influences much more than the “rock” side of the equation. A lot of that stuff was fun, but it seemed like more of a diversion than the work of an actual band. I could say roughly the same about their recent comeback album Push and Shove, which is pleasant but not particularly deep – I’ve put off reviewing it because it just makes me want to go back and remember the days when each member of No Doubt really stood out, rather than fading into a parade of synthesizers and guest rappers and so forth. Tragic Kingdom was where the band hit their sweet spot, clearly knowing how to write a tune that would set the radio waves on fire, but also infusing it with a lot of personal pathos, much of it driven by Gwen’s then-recent breakup with bassist Tony Kanal. Having her brother Eric Stefani on board to co-write a lot of songs (this being his last album before leaving the band) lends a different flavor to them than we would hear on later releases. In many ways, Tragic Kingdom is a potpourri of lyrical ideas and song styles, with its subject matter ranging from the expected woe-is-me relationship songs, to feminism, to stalkers, to unstoppably happy dance parties, to decrying evil corporations in an over-the-top, possibly tongue-in-cheek manner. Given its broad reach, you’d expect an album like this to be a trainwreck, but due to the band’s high energy and solid performance, it all hangs together extremely well, even years later when its sound could be considered “dated”. As much as going back and listening to this larger-than-life disc can feel like opening a 90s time capsule, I can honestly say that I’d probably love it just as much if I were hearing all of its songs for the first time today.
(Hopefully you won’t mind if I copy and paste a little bit from my review of the band’s greatest hits album The Singles 1992-2003 when discussing songs that also appeared on that compilation. My opinion of those songs really hasn’t changed in the intervening years.)
I tell you, I still have an involuntary twitch every now and them when I hear that steel drum intro and those horns that lead into this song’s ping-ponging beat. This is the classic “stalker song” about a guy who keeps calling Gwen and won’t leave her alone despite clear indications that she’s not interested – I had this song’s chorus on my answering machine at one point during my college years, ’cause you know, that was a real original idea on my part. (Excuse me while I roll my eyes at my own stupidity.) While I never really understood what the phrase “walking into spiderwebs” had to do with the rest of the song (was she hiding from the guy in her closet or something?), and while it took a while for this one to stand out among my other favorites on this album, I can see how it was able to build an effective bridge between the pop, rock and ska audiences with its peppy guitar riffs and sassy horns, and I can understand why it became such an addictive radio single. I guess I just see this one as foreshadowing even more brilliance to come.
2. Excuse Me Mr.
In terms of pure bpm’s, this has got to be one of the most frantic songs I’ve ever heard from No Doubt (though we’ll get to an even better example later in the album), rattling along with thrashing pop-punk energy as Gwen pines away over a lover who basically doesn’t have any time for her. She sounds so pathetic, pleading with him for attention and singing, “I’m in line to buy time”. There’s some clever wordplay in this one, and it’s easy to miss since it all flies by so quickly. The weird, Dixieland jazz-type of sound that pops out of nowhere during the bridge is absolutely classic – you can just imagine her in some old, black-and-white silent film, tied to the train tracks, screaming for help while a villain with a curly mustache is cackling at her and her hero is nowhere to be found. I also can’t hear the careening, rattling drums that end off the song without being reminded of one time when this song was played on our local rock station KROQ, and after the song’s conclusion, the DJ triumphantly announced, “Yahtzee!” Um… I guess you had to be there.
3. Just a Girl
This was the big hit that put No Doubt on the map. Its bouncy, synthesized guitar opening and highly danceable, cymbal-heavy beat make for the perfect backdrop to Gwen’s feminist quandary, and the band keeps things lively and spirited despite the protesting nature of the song. I actually didn’t realize for quite a while that the song was written in defense of feminism – Gwen was simply sick of being overprotected and told she couldn’t participate in things due to her sex when she co-wrote this one, and her frustration clearly pours out as she shrieks, “Ohhhhhhh! I’ve had it up to here!” Sure, with her high-pitched and slightly ditzy vocals, she’s one step away from being a “Barbie Girl” (did that obnoxious song come before or after this one, anyway?), but I think that just adds to the irony.
4. Happy Now?
Another rocker with a furious backbeat shows up here – this one wasn’t as big of a hit but I do remember it showing up on the radio all the same, when they were like seven or eight singles in and Return of Saturn was still but a gleam in Gwen Stefani’s eye. The guitar riffing is incredibly strong here, and despite the straightforwardness of the song, Gwen does some really unusual things with the melody, which I think is one of the under-appreciated aspects of No Doubt’s work – they have a knack for bizarre chord progressions that really help to set them apart from your average Johnny-Three-Chord band. Most of this song is spent directing vitriol at an ex-boyfriend, demanding to know if his return to bachelor freedom is all he thought it was cracked up to be. It’s a pretty good showcase for Gwen’s voice, given all the grunts and shouts and yelps she goes through here, but needless to say, if you find her voice to be an acquired taste, this won’t be the track to help you acquire it.
5. Different People
The group’s ska roots show a lot more clearly on this peppy, horn-driven track, which is fun, though I never really understood how it fit into the grand scheme of things on this album. It’s a blast to listen to, with its staccato rhythm and Gwen’s voice bouncing all over the place. Lyrically, it’s a bit confused, unsure whether it’s telling a story about two sisters, or a sister and a brother, or the whole dang human race, as it pleads for us to understand that people are… well, different. Honestly, the platitudes that Gwen spouts off here are rather inept as they plead for us all to just get along and be more understanding and such: “The sky is full of clouds/And my world’s full of people/You got the different kinds/With different ways/It would take a lifetime to explain/Not one’s the same.” Fortunately the band does quite a bit to cover for her lapse in songwriting, with their starts and stops and various guitar and horn riffs punctuating the song almost constantly. In the end, the song keeps things moving along nicely, but it still sticks out like a sore thumb on an album full of much stronger material. (Then again, if we’re gonna play “how low can you go”, this is probably one of the highest low points on any album that I own.)
6. Hey You
There’s a perfect mix of edgy guitar attitude and 80s pop gloss in this one. To me, it’s every bit as catchy as the band’s biggest hits from this album. It’s a bit cynical, as Gwen proceeds to dismantle a hopeful, idealistic young bride, insisting that she and the groom she’s about to exchange vows with are “Just like my Ken and Barbie dolls, in a plastic world of make-believe”. It comes across as an extreme case of sour grapes, given that when she wrote it, she was still reeling from a major setback on the road to marriage (and it’s not like settling down and starting a family with Gavin Rossdale since then has stopped her from writing these sorts of songs either). For all I know, she could be making fun of her own hopeless romantic habits here, reminding herself not to idealize marriage when it’s never a perfect dream come true for anyone. Even if the lyrics are kind of a downer, you’ll perk up when the keyboard solo comes in, sounding quite intentionally like it was ripped off from the soundtrack to Disney’s Main Street Electrical Parade.
7. The Climb
Ladies and gentlemen, here it is… my all-time favorite No Doubt song. What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of it? Well, I suppose I can’t blame you for that. It’s definitely the odd song out from the perspective of radio-friendliness, which is not to say it isn’t catchy, but its epic reach made it rather easy to disqualify the song from the long list of potential singles on this album. It’s a weird, circus-like waltz of a song, built around cartoonishly bluesy guitar riffs and a smokin’ horn section. It may well be the best example of No Doubt firing on all cylinders as a band. And it’s so damn inspirational that all these years later, I still get strong flashbacks to when I would use the song as a motivator on hikes, pushing myself to make it to the top of some hill or ridge at the climax of a hike that I’d probably be way too out of shape to manage now. Basically, this one was my “Eye of the Tiger”, even if musically, it’s less of a sprint and more of an endurance test. Through its many melodic turns, Gwen gives a stellar performance, bridging many elements of a complex song structure and still managing to come up with a breathtaking chorus: “So high the climb/I can’t turn back now/Must keep climbing up to the clouds.” At six and a half minutes, you may beg for mercy if you’re actually finishing up a workout and refuse to stop until the song does, especially since it vamps on at the end for a little longer than you’d expect to (and I’m willing to bet they dragged this out to legendary proportions on the tour for this album). But I think getting a little extra out of everybody involved is exactly what this one is all about.
The second half of the record kicks off with more sassy, distorted guitars, excitable rock energy that comes close to matching the mood of “Excuse Me Mr.”, and a bit of reggae bounce in the verses just to balance things out. It’s a strong performance by all involved, including the bass and keyboards, elements which don’t always stand out as much in guitar-driven rockers. This one sort of takes the cynicism of “Hey You” and applies it to the teenage years, on the one hand sympathizing with the song’s young characters, whom the adults around them still treat like little kids, but also sort of chiding them for naively believing that they can live recklessly and plow straight into adulthood before they’re really ready for it without some tragic consequences along the way. Again, this may be a way for Gwen to look back and sort of make fun of herself. Or it may just be an inside look at the ups and downs of youthful rebellion from a band whose early years were probably influenced by a lot of musicians who sort of became the poster children for a disaffected generation.
9. Sunday Morning
After the end of “Sixteen”, the kinetic drum rolls that open this song provide an incredibly slick segue. I’ve gotta give credit to drummer Adrian Young; he provides all manner of energetic rhythms to No Doubt’s songs, and his work is always so crisp and clear and in-your-face (well, unless No Doubt’s doing some sort of a programmed dance thing), and it seems that nobody but Gwen ever gets any credit. The same can be said for guitarist Tom Dumont, who shows a lot of versatility in this song, making hairpin turns between playing loud power chords and doing some electrified version of the downbeat reggae strum during the verses. It’s a strange fusion of styles, making it even stranger when Gwen decides to deliver the bridge as spoken word, taunting an ex-lover like a little kid, and finally getting over the pity party she’s been throwing for the rest of the song. The song is basically about how it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself in the wake of a breakup, and not realize that the other person probably wasn’t very good for you anyway. With the break of day, after having slept on it, Gwen starts to see the guy in a whole new light.
10. Don’t Speak
Show of hands… How many of you, after breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend who was in the same band as you, would remain in the band with him or her? OK, now let’s try this question… How many of you knew that Tragic Kingdom was basically written to document Gwen and Tony’s breakup? Yep, he’s still in the band to this day. I just don’t know how some people do it. Anyway, their split may have given us one of the most drastically overplayed, but still lovable, breakup songs in the history of rock music. Sure, it’s kind of a cliche for such a cartoonish rock band to suddenly mellow out and do a serious ballad that seemed to guarantee phone lines being lit up at rock and adult contemporary radio stations nationwide, but give No Doubt credit – Gwen and her brother Eric composed a killer minor-key melody here. Something about the way the notes turn downward when she assures the guy, “If it’s real, then I don’t want to know” just makes it possible to feel the bottom dropping out under us all as we realize that we’ve lost not just a lover, but a best friend. Man, that hurts. And No Doubt has summed it up beautifully here with mournful electric guitar strumming, powerful drums that kick in at just the right moment, a delicious classical guitar interlude, and a muted trumpet. (Actually, the trumpet blurts out all of one note when the bridge segues into Gwen’s last verse – I never did figure out what the point of that was.) It’s one of those quintessential pop songs that I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of, despite my contempt for how much the radio overplays stuff like this.
11. You Can Do It
Now let’s be honest, did some of you just turn the album off or tune it out after “Don’t Speak” was over? Burying a soon-to-be-hit song at track 10 on such a long album was certainly a gutsy move, but I appreciate that Tragic Kingdom is neither front-loaded with singles nor back-loaded with filler. One of the album’s most joyous songs shows up here, its peppy horns and irresistible disco beat serving as a deliberate counterpoint to the fading melodrama of the previous song. And Gwen’s vocals have never sounded so animated as they do here, which goes a long way to elevate the song above its admittedly insipid lyrics, which are all about encouraging someone going through hard times that they may be down, but they’re not too far gone to make a comeback. Listening to this one nowadays, I see it as a bit of a risky experiment at the time, that fans in the 90s probably wouldn’t have latched on to as well, but given how Gwen and the gang decided to dive pretty much headlong into synthesized pop and dance music at the turn of the century, nowadays this one strikes me as a preview of what was to come. I still felt they were doing a pretty good job with the retro dance-pop thing on Rock Steady, but they just feel so much tighter as a band on this one, and for me that makes the song a runaway success.
12. World Go ‘Round
I always thought of this one as the lone laid-back reggae song on a largely caffeinated album. It’s got a lot in common with their later hit “Underneath It All”, at least in terms of its overall mood and pacing, though the lyrics are broader in their scope (possibly too broad, aiming for peace, love, and warm fuzzies in the same vein as “Different People”), and there’s more of a climactic breakdown during the bridge, when the band seems to be playing a rhythmic game of hide-and-go-seek with all of its sudden stops and starts. If you were gonna wave a lighter or flash a peace sign at a No Doubt concert back in the day, you probably would have done it to this song.
13. End It on This
The only track in the album’s back half that I think might have been better left as a B-side is this one, which could well have been conceived as the album’s final track before they came up with a much better one. The mood here is similar to “Happy Now?”, with a side of the same melancholy that propelled “Don’t Speak”, just at a much faster tempo. There’s a piano riff that seems foreboding, almost as if it’s pursuing you in some sort of high-speed chase. I really can’t point out anything bad about this one, other than the fact that it might be harping on the whole breakup topic one too many times (even if the shoe is on the other foot, as Gwen realizes a relationship just isn’t working out for her and decides to end it with a dramatic final kiss). Sticking this one after “Don’t Speak” might have worked out better; then we could go into the happier, more peaceful stuff before the band trotted out the grand finale.
14. Tragic Kingdom
“Remain seated, please! ¡Permanecer sentados, por favor!” This bilingual announcement from the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland, complete with the sound of screaming people whizzing by on a roller coaster, sets the stage for a doozy of finale that aims to rip the Disney Corporation a new one. You might want to stop listening if you’re one of those die-hard Disney fanatics with the annual passes who visit the park every single weekend. Though it is just veiled enough that you might not get all the references if you don’t listen closely. And boy, do the references fly fast and furious as this thrill ride of a song lumbers toward the finish line, shifting its rhythm back and forth and finding every way it can to twist No Doubt’s patented over-driven guitar riffs and horn fanfares into a manic nightmare worthy of a Tim Burton film. It’s by far the most complex and ambitious song on the album, if not the band’s entire discography, and my love for it has only grown since I was first encouraged to give it a closer listen (ironically on the way back to the dorms from a trip to Disneyland). Being from Orange County, the band probably knew the skinny on whatever corruption took place behind the scenes of “The Happiest Place on Earth”, or at the very least, they knew how to spin a good story. Either way, it’s not the idealism behind the park’s inception that they’re bashing, just the way tourist traps like it can turn so easily into soulless cash cows. “They pay homage to a king/Whose dreams are buried in their minds/His tears are frozen stiff/Icicles drip from his eyes.” See how clever they are, they even worked the urban legend about Walt Disney being cryogenically frozen into the song’s chorus! Now if there mere thought of such a dark song terrifies or outrages you, you definitely won’t want to stick around for the ending, which is downright stressful and which I’m guessing must have been the cause of several speeding tickets and fatal auto wrecks, as it quickly speeds up to an incomprehensible pace before the band finally falls apart, exhausted, with the horn section apparently rebelling by playing whatever melodies they felt like while the tape was left rolling. (Listen carefully at the end – there are some fun little Easter eggs there.)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Excuse Me Mr. $1.75
Just a Girl $2
Happy Now $1.25
Different People $.75
Hey You $1.75
The Climb $2
Sunday Morning $1.75
Don’t Speak $2
You Can Do It $1.75
World Go ‘Round $1
End It on This $.75
Tragic Kingdom $2
Gwen Stefani: Lead vocals
Tom Dumont: Guitars
Tony Kanal: Bass
Adrian Young: Drums, percussion
Eric Stefani: Keyboards, piano (no longer with the band)
Phil Jordan: Trumpet (no longer with the band)
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.