“No big deal,” cautions Gwen Stefani on “Settle Down,” the opening track off No Doubt’s new Push And Shove. “Been around the block before / doesn’t matter anymore.” In the context of the song, it’s meant to be empowering, but as lyrical proclamations go, it’s not the most triumphant opening salvo to the first album in 11 years from one of the biggest pop-rock groups of the last two decades. It’s as if Stefani’s tempering expectations for an album that’s perhaps welcome among the band’s fans, but not exactly hotly anticipated by the population at large.
And indeed, Push And Shove seems less like a triumphant return than a delayed continuation, dutifully extending the mixture of shiny pop and dancehall that characterized 2001’s Rock Steady, with little concern for either forward thinking or nostalgia. (Remember when No Doubt was nominally a ska band? Neither does this album.) Outside of a deep, dubstep-y chorus on the standout, Major Lazer-assisted title track, which singlehandedly justifies pop music’s current obsession with dubstep, there’s little to mark Push And Shove as a creation of today’s music scene rather than a product of keepin’ on keepin’ on. But when No Doubt keeps on with what it does best—namely bouncy, busy dance jams— Push And Shove is a treat, especially the multi-textured “Settle Down” and “Push And Shove,” as well as the preening “Looking Hot.”
After those early tracks, though, the album sags in the midtempo-heavy middle, with Stefani’s slang-laden lyrics transitioning from campy to corny without a boost from adrenalized production. But Push And Shove rallies in the end, especially with the unobtrusive gem “Sparkle,” whose horn-heavy production and lilting rhythm hearkens back to the SoCal stylings of the Tragic Kingdom era. It’s in moments like this and the title track, when No Doubt projects a strong view toward the past or future, that Push And Shove shines, but too much of the album is spent gazing at the bland middle distance.