Gwen Stefani is just a girl. She makes that very clear on Return of Saturn, No Doubt's follow-up to its last album, 1995's Tragic Kingdom. Whether musing about settling down in the "Simple Kind of Life" ("And all I needed was a simple man, so I could be a simple wife"), dealing with fame in "Magic's in the Makeup" ("Can you tell I'm faking it? But I want to be myself"), or contemplating marriage in "Marry Me" ("I wouldn't mind if my name changed to Mrs."), Stefani makes it very clear that, despite the multiplatinum success of Tragic Kingdom and the weight of the world resting on her ability to sell this long-awaited third album, she is indeed just a down-home gal looking forward to a life of two kids, a happy husband, and a house in the suburbs.
And if you believe that, there's no convincing you that the generic ska pop of Return of Saturn is pretty bland stuff, and that this album, which should have taken advantage of No Doubt's sudden fame a year or so after Tragic Kingdom's release, is a stiff retread of its already-dull formula. Stefani kicks up obsession ("Bathwater") and neuroses ("Ex-Girlfriend") as well as one would expect a pop-minded '90s girl to address such things in the modern world, but she's so one-dimensional and simple about it that you begin to wonder how she became a teenage grrrl icon in the first place.
It doesn't help that the band churns out tired SoCal ska that went out when most of these kids took their horns and migrated to the even more weary neo-swing movement. For every peppy "Ex-Girlfriend" or "New," there are four cuts that plug into the mechanics of Ska 101 to more monotonous effect. Worse are Stefani's gushy ballads, most of which sound like "Don't Speak" rewrites. She's a girl really hooked on this marriage thing, or as she awkwardly puts it in the obvious "Marry Me," "A girl in the world barking up the wrong tree/A creature conditioned to employ matrimony." Imagine an album of such sentiments (as well as a few standard fame-sucks platitudes), irony-free, and you pretty much have the hollow rings that are orbiting around her planet.