Gwen Stefani is often touted as a rare real personality in the pop environment, but what has she ever conjured besides the image of a California girl in a band with a bunch of boys? Her giddy stage moves and emotive pleadings prove powerful more often than not, but they usually point back at a star who's made it her project to be as empty and open to anyone's interpretation as a silent-film actress.
None of this would matter if Stefani hadn't spun her solo debut as less about herself than anything else she's ever done. She presumably means to brace against complaints aimed at Love. Angel. Music. Baby.'s good-times romp through '80s-tinted memories, but she's presuming an awful lot for a songwriter whose big reveal came by way of a song called "Don't Speak."
It's not necessary, either. Through a mish-mash of songs that cycle through rock, rap, and electroclash pop, Love showcases Stefani as a game chameleon who sounds like 12 different frontwomen on 12 different tracks. In the album-opening "What You Waiting For?", she's pissed and self-lacerating, sounding like Siouxsie Sioux transported into a song dotted with calls to "take a chance, you stupid ho!" In "Rich Girl," she's a na-na-na brat tramping alongside dancehall toasting by rapper Eve. "Hollaback Girl," featuring a trashcan beat by The Neptunes, finds Stefani slinging playground snipes while inviting haters to shout along with the letters in "bananas."
At its best, Love casts Stefani as excitedly restless and bubbly, like a weird voice in old Miami booty-bass tracks or New York jump-rope songs. A few songs sound tossed-off, but a few of the stranger ones work: "Bubble Pop Electric" features a guitar-draped drum-and-bass track by Andre 3000 (as "Johnny Vulture"), "Harajuku Girls" sounds like demure would-be Japanese pop, and "Crash" pulls old electro dance anthems into a future that Stefani makes her own. Those looking for the key to Stefani's heart might be left cold, but Love. Angel. Music. Baby. does brisk trade in the sounds that really get her blood pumping.