Tragic Kingdom – No Doubt

Tragic Kingdom

No Doubt

1995

Trauma / Interscope

On paper, Tragic Kingdom is a classic 1990’s album: seven singles were released from it, sixteen million copies were sold worldwide, and it helped usher in a ska revival.  This, No Doubt’s third album, also became their breakthrough record, creating a pop star out of Gwen Stefani.  And yet, listening to the whole thing, I can’t help but feel bored out of my mind.

I do like a handful of songs off of this record, honestly.  Mainly No Doubt’s biggest singles stand out.  However, the band focuses way too much on the ska aspect of their sound for most of the record, which is just insipid and borderline revolting.  Stefani’s vocals jump all over during the course of Tragic Kingdom; at times her singing fits the songs perfectly, the mood pouring out of the speakers, and other times, you want her to shut the hell up like a good woman.

The singles on the album can be great.  “Just a Girl” uses its bubbly music during the verse with its sarcastic “Take this pink ribbon off my eyes / I’m exposed / And it’s no big surprise” and then contrasts it all with a scathing attack on society, a surly Riot Grrrl movement song.  “Spiderwebs” uses its ska background as a framework, but quickly jumps into a fun, uptempo rock song, complete with a great melody from Stefani.  No Doubt even slows things down, with “Don’t Speak,” the only real ballad on the album.  It’s a well-written song, a lamentable break-up track, that, despite its acoustic slowness, portrays a sense of urgency in the combination of lyrics and music.  And then you’ve got “Excuse Me Mr.” which is quite possibly the best song on the album, with its punk-skewed spidery guitar lines and Stefani’s aggressive theatrics.

If only the rest of the album lived up to the high standards set by these singles.

Now, ska is quite possibly the most abhorrent style of music ever.  It’s a genre only beloved by High School Marching Band members frightened of having social lives but who still want to rebel against John Phillip Sousa.  It combines genres generally viewed as defiant and outside the norm and then castrates them, leaving out the creativity that made them great.  Ska takes the fun out of Punk, but leaves the sloppy, untalented playing.  Reggae is involved but only to the extent of boring rhythms, lazily repeated.  And lastly, a focus of this God-forsaken genre is on brass players that don’t understand the subtle complexity of jazz and why Miles Davis was so great.  It’s a safe form of music for kids that think “skanking” doesn’t look like the dumbest possible way of moving your body.  And this is the genre that No Doubt sounds trapped in during most of Tragic Kingdom.

“Sixteen,” “Different People,” “World Go Round,” “End it on This,” and just, ugh, so much of this album features variations on annoying keyboard sounds over Reggae rhythms and blaring trumpets refusing to mature.  “Sixteen,” possibly the worst offender, hits it right on the head, “Now you’re finally sixteen / And you’re feeling old / But they won’t believe / That you’ve got a soul.”  And during these mind-numbing, juvenile indignations is where Gwen Stefani loses control.  She’s a singer working with drama and theatrics in her voice, and those two qualities don’t work with ska.  Listen to “Different People” when Stefani sings “One can teach the other one,” and you’ll hear her straining her already high voice, trying to fit in a melody that just won’t meld with the music.

Gwen Stefani doesn’t understand the difference between a Tea Party and a Picnic. And, is that a deer? Or a Petting Zoo either, apparently.

It’s a Goddamn shame because she can be a good singer.  She can do aggressive when it’s called for, as shown.  Hell, she can pull off sexy, breathy vocals (towards the end of “The Climb”), making her persona as a modern pin-up model almost make sense.  Then the last track, the amazing “Tragic Kingdom,” actually contains music that fits the theatrics of her vocals.  It’s proven that No Doubt can write cool songs like the title track, and yet, they mainly stick with songs like “Sunday Morning,” where you hope that some kind of domestic abuse happens to Stefani just because her vocals are asking for it.

Maybe I’m being harsh.  At least with this album, No Doubt got famous because of music they believed in.  It was before they became a straight-up pop band with the likes of “Hey Baby” and before Stefani taught us all how to spell the word “banana.”  But the worst part is that they can write well-crafted tunes, like “Excuse Me Mr.” and “Just a Girl” that have great lyrics as well as talented music.  They still just focus on the drab, adolescent ska, with trumpet players that don’t quite understand the coolness of rock music.  It’s a sound that makes their disco-inspired “You Can Do It” a welcome break during the album.  I would much rather that this “classic” ’90’s album remain under the radar, thus keeping all the High School Marching Band nerds out of Rock and Roll.  Except for hearing Gary Glitter’s anthem at football games, where they belong.

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5 Responses to “Tragic Kingdom – No Doubt”

  1. Nicholas Says:

    I disagree. Skanking is the second worst. Whatever those karate spasms metalcore kids like to do in the mosh pit are worse.

    • See, I don’t know. Metalcore assholes at least know they’re not cool. Ska kids think they’re the coolest thing ever, which is what does it for me. Any dance you do in a Pork Pie Hat, I feel, is the dumbest thing ever.

  2. […] “Sunday Morning” — No Doubt: Solid song and video from No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. Unfortunately, Gwen took three steps back with her solo career (see the previous list), and thus […]

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