Two-Hit Wonders

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When No Doubt first took its music to Los Angeles radio station K-ROQ in 1992, the message from the grunge-obsessed program director was not your polite kiss-off: "It will take an act of God for this band to get on the radio." The Lord works in mysterious ways. Grunge fell off the cultural cliff, and No Doubt's mix of punk, pop and ska alchemized into the carefree, radio-friendly sound of the mid-'90s. Tragic Kingdom sold 15 million copies and turned singer Gwen Stefani into the It Girl for teenagers of both sexes. All the while, the band members deflected criticism with aplomb, joking about their 15 minutes and telling anyone who would listen that even if they were only one-hit wonders, that's one more hit than most people ever get.

But nobody's really satisfied with just one hit. As No Doubt prepares to release Return of Saturn, its long-struggled-over fourth album, the group finds itself the victim of the same erratic pop market that gave it multiplatinum millionaire video stardom. "I just don't know where we fit in," says Stefani, contemplating the andro-fueled rock bands and teen pop tarts that have muscled into No Doubt's territory. "There should be enough room for everything," she says gloomily, "but right now those acts take up so much room."

Stefani's resentment could be perceived as impudent--she is, after all, a deluxe pop tart herself. But on this album, she seems to come by the attitude honestly. After 2 1/2 years on the road supporting Tragic Kingdom, Stefani, bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young returned to their Southern California homes in 1997 badly frayed. While the guys recuperated, Stefani checked into her parents' house and went through "a weird kind of depression. Maybe not a depression so much as just a cloudy, confusing state for a couple of years."

We're not talking Sylvia Plath stuff, just some emotional hiccups as Stefani confronted motherhood pangs, loneliness (her boyfriend, Bush lead singer Gavin Rossdale, lives in London) and turning 30. When she emerged from the fog, two things were clear. The hyperactive ball of energy that sang Just a Girl was now, she says, "like, a woman." Also, No Doubt needed to grow up. "I think we all knew it," says Dumont. "We got together and decided that rather than repeat Tragic Kingdom, we should have a goal--to improve as songwriters. To stretch."

For a year, No Doubt indulged itself, writing in small groups and recording tracks on a tiny tape recorder. Soon, however, megaproducer Glen Ballard was brought in to get things moving. Ballard is best known as Alanis Morissette's co-writer and producer. The band insists that hiring Ballard was its choice; Ballard says he was recruited by micromanaging Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine. In any case, Dumont admits that he initially thought Ballard was "too slick" for the job. "I won't pretend there wasn't some pressure for them to write with me," says Ballard. "Whatever it took to make sure that they had a, quote, radio single."

The result is a rare and surprising thing--a follow-up record that may please everyone. Return of Saturn has lyrics that are accessibly vague, music that pushes the listener--though not too much--and singles primed to blare from a car stereo. It's not high art, but it's much more substantial than, say, "Hit me, baby, one more time." On the standout Simple Kind of Life, Stefani mulls the crossroads of womanhood: "I always thought I'd be a mom/ Sometimes I wish for a mistake/ The longer that I wait the more selfish that I get." She does bittersweet very well. Return of Saturn may not sell 15 million copies, but it proves No Doubt has much more than just 15 minutes.