No Doubt were nominated in the Grammys’ Best New Artist category because of the success of Tragic Kingdom, their third album and one released some nine years after the band had initially formed. So it’s not too much of a stretch to think of its 2000 follow-up, Return Of Saturn — released 20 years ago this weekend, nearly half a decade after Tragic Kingdom made them stars — in “troubled second album” terms. Heck, the album itself is named for the Saturn return, the pre-midlife midlife crisis that, according to astrologers, hits sometime between the ages of 27 and 30.
“I’m only sure that I’m not sure,” Stefani muses over the stormy arpeggios and slick bassline of “Artificial Sweetener,” a line that defines both the background of Return Of Saturn and the themes that permeate its lyrics. After a lengthy tour in support of Kingdom, No Doubt began hammering out its follow-up in early 1998 with that album’s producer, ’80s hit-maker turned recent TikTok success story Matthew Wilder. But those sessions didn’t work out, and the band enlisted super-producer Glen Ballard, who’d struck alt-pop gold with Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill a few years earlier.
“We were stuck and feeling desperate, thinking we’d never finish this if we don’t get somebody to push us,” Stefani told USA Today. Ballard went to work, winnowing down the 40 songs that had been written before he came on board, a process he later described as “performing triage” in multiple interviews — although the album’s leadoff track and first single, the jittery “Ex-Girlfriend,” was the album’s final piece, having been written and recorded after executives at Interscope claimed they didn’t hear a single. (One contender, the twitchy “New,” had appeared on the soundtrack to the rave caper Go the year before.)
Interscope probably would have been anxious no matter what No Doubt had turned in; Return Of Saturn arrived at alt-rock radio during a particularly low period for the format, which was mired in its post-grunge morass and surrounded by “No Girls Allowed” signs. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ moany “Otherside” was in the midst of its 13-week run topping Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart when Saturn came out, and on most other charts from that album’s singles run, No Doubt were often the only female-fronted act present.
But Return Of Saturn has some genuinely catchy tracks aside from “Ex-Girlfriend,” ones that could have broken through even in the age of the Chili Peppers and Creed ruling rock radio and teenpop dominating TRL. “Staring Problem” is shot through with anxiety, Stefani’s gasped lyrics about feeling insecure among other women serving as a hot-pink neon sign that everyone’s at least a little bit damaged by patriarchy. “Simple Kind of Life” flips discordant strumming into the sort of brightly colored chorus that made Foo Fighters songs like “Learn to Fly” crossover hits, Stefani’s dreaming of domesticity being persistently followed around by a cloud. The bouncy “Bathwater” manages to shoehorn a lot of ideas — brass, falsetto cooing, vaudeville-era showmanship — into a compact package, Stefani preening as she reels off the absurd lengths the mind goes to when it thinks it’s in love.
Saturn has its flaws. It’s a bit overlong — it brushes just past the 60-minute mark, a hallmark of the era when CDs’ data capacity ballooned albums to 74 minutes — and it could have saved a couple of its ballads for a soundtrack or a CD single’s bonus offering. But reading the press surrounding it two decades later — much of it written by men who seem a bit put off by the feelings being expressed by Stefani — is enough to make one leap to an impassioned defense. “Ever wondered how it feels to be unmarried and barren at 30?” sneered Ed Masley of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a review that also instructed Stefani to “keep it real,” while Robert Christgau sighed, “Gwen Stefani is forced to battle the perception that she’s shallow because shallow is what she is.” Dan Aquilante of the New York Post, meanwhile, asked Stefani about the existentially bothered rave-up “Six Feet Under” in this fashion: “Gwen, you’re young and beautiful, and that song looks at your own mortality. Is your demise really on your mind these days?”
These analyses — a generous term, but let’s run with it — overlook the sardonic side of Stefani’s lyrics. The slow bounce and ghostly keyboards of “Marry Me” accompany Stefani musing about roads not taken and the fear that accompanies solo journeys: “Looking back, looking back at me/ I’m not how I used to be/ Take me back, take me back into history/ Diamond ring, tie me down just like it used to be,” she gently whimpers. But the knowledge that the past can’t be rewritten is present in the music’s gloom, and her singing “forever and ever and ever” over and over on the song’s coda sounds more like the narrator’s realization that any sort of happiness is, for all our hopes, pretty temporary.
That tension animates the best parts of Return Of Saturn, and illuminates how out-of-time it was. It came out, tinged with uncertainty and after a seemingly long wait, as the music industry was in full-on self-celebration mode, minting diamond-selling records and reveling in maximalism from lunkheaded rock bands and slickly produced TRL favorites. No Doubt didn’t fit into either side of that binary, so it had to forge its own path — and Return Of Saturn let listeners in on what that process sounded like.