No Doubt's 'Tragic Kingdom' at 20: Classic Track-by-Track Album Review
By the time No Doubt pogoed onto most people’s radars with Tragic Kingdom, released 20 years ago today (Oct. 10, 1995), the Orange County band had been through enough drama for two or three episodes of Behind the Music.
The story begins way back in 1986, when siblings Eric and Gwen Stefani -- two Anaheim kids smitten with British ska groups like Madness and the Selecter -- decided to form a group. Eric, the elder, played piano and wrote most of the songs; Gwen sang backup to John Spence, an energetic frontman fond of saying the two words that became the band’s name. In 1987, just as the crew was building a local following, Spence committed suicide, handing No Doubt its first major setback.
More followed. Radio wouldn’t touch these guys -- not in the grungy early ‘90s they somehow survived their way into -- and their first two albums failed to generate much commercial heat. Sessions for No Doubt’s third LP proved torturous, as execs at Interscope did what execs at major labels sometimes do best: interfere. Facing scrutiny from the suits, the group recorded in fits and starts, working in 11 studios before all was said and done.
“It was the outcome of three years of struggle,” said bassist Tony in a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone. “And there were casualties.”
There sure were. During the making of Tragic Kingdom, Eric quit to become an animator on The Simpsons, and Kanal ended his eight-year romantic relationship with Gwen. These things transpired as the group -- rounded out by guitarist Tom Dumont and drummer Adrian Young -- tried to reverse their commercial fortunes while maintaining their artistic integrity. Fate was trying to break their stride and slow them down, but luckily, they had producer Matthew Wilder -- he of “ain’t nothing gonna break my stride” fame -- at the controls. While not exactly the hippest guy in the world, Wilder helped Gwen and the boys strike the right balance between the bouncy ska of their early years and the other sounds they were already drifting toward.
That last point is crucial. While some ska fans blasted the band for abandoning its roots, this was no overnight ka-ching thing. No Doubt’s sophomore effort, 1995’s self-released Beacon Street Collection, is all over the map, and even the group’s 1992 self-titled debut isn’t a front-to-back genre record.
And besides, by blowing out ska’s borders, No Doubt was following in the proud footsteps of fellow California acts like Fishbone and Oingo Boingo -- not to mention all those 2 Tone groups from England that Gwen and Eric grew up worshipping. After nearly a decade in action, No Doubt circa ’95 was an ambitious foursome with a metal guitarist, a Prince-loving funk bassist, and a drummer comfortable in various styles. They’d have done themselves a disservice by sticking strictly with ska, and they’d have never made it out of Anaheim.
Of course, they did make it out. Tragic Kingdom sold 16 million copies and reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Only one of the singles, “Just a Girl,” cracked the Hot 100, but that’s because the rest weren’t released as proper singles. That technicality meant that tunes like “Spiderwebs” and the mega-smash “Don’t Speak” could only climb the Billboard Hot Airplay chart, and climb they did, reaching No. 23 and No. 1, respectively.
As dramatized in the “Don’t Speak” video, Gwen’s emergence as a superstar was a huge part of the group’s success. For teen girls in the late ‘90s, she was a different sort of idol, a glamorpuss in track pants who’d play girly-girl one minute and raging punk chick the next. In a pop landscape filled with power female figures, (Alanis Morissette, Shirley Manson, Courtney Love, etc.), Gwen’s bindi-dotted, bare-abbed, Barbie-warrior-princess aesthetic made her an alternative to all the alternatives.
Eric’s departure left her to handle the bulk of the lyrics, and the Tony situation left her with lots to write about. It was serendipitous, suddenly having this forum to express the greatest heartbreak she’d ever experienced, though it couldn’t have seemed like it at the time.
Thanks to Tragic Kingdom, No Doubt became one of the era’s biggest bands, and two decades later, it still tours and records when the mood strikes. Gwen, meanwhile, is a bona fide solo star and beloved TV figure, thanks to The Voice. The group hasn’t released an album since 2012’s somewhat disappointing Push and Shove, but this past August brought news that Gwen is divorcing husband Gavin Rossdale after nearly 13 years of marriage, so should the gang regroup, she’ll have plenty of fodder for her songwriting.
Read on for our track-by-track take on this, the third album from a nerdy ska band formed during the Reagan administration that somehow became cool in the ‘90s and maintained its mojo into the new millennium.
“Spiderwebs”: A few bars of classic brassy ska, and then it’s off to the next level with some synth-inflected New Wave rock. The double-time chorus mimics Gwen’s annoyance, as some joker -- maybe Tony, maybe another dude -- keeps invading her thoughts and blowing up her phone. In those crazy landline days, when not everyone had caller ID, a stalking suitor could really wreck your flow.
“Excuse Me Mr.”: In some ways the opposite of “Spiderwebs,” this speedy punk tune finds Gwen trying like hell to get some guy’s attention. Her tone here is anxious, and the switch two-thirds through into circus music says quite a bit about the absurdity of love.
“Just a Girl”: The spiky New Wave rocker that broke No Doubt big told the world everything it needed to know about Gwen Renee Stefani. She’s a blonde SoCal cutie who’ll make with the baby talk and kewpie eyes, but she’s not some delicate flower who needs protecting or tolerates special treatment.
“Happy Now?”: “You killed the pair / now only one is breathing.” Gwen’s clearly not happy now, and this mix of power pop and punky ska sums up what Gwen must’ve been feeling around 1995. The song likely took on extra meaning as the group graduated from clubs to larger venues, and she reveled in success spurred by songs written about the guy that got away -- and who was standing a few feet away with a bass around his neck.
“Different People”: Gwen steps outside herself and trips out on the vastness of the world and the variety of people (and, um, animals) who live here. It ain’t exactly profound, but the spoonfuls of sugary ska make the medicine go down.
“Hey You”: In which a jaded Gwen gives some tough love to a girl dreaming of a white wedding: “You’re just like my Ken and Barbie Doll / Your name will never change.” Even with a neo-psychedelic ‘60s vibe that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Bangles record, this forgettable filler track is a candidate for most skippable.
“The Climb”: Let Eric Stefani take you down, ‘cause he’s going to… a “Strawberry Fields”-style psych-rock track with doo-wop choruses, big-top brass fanfare, clichéd inspirational lyrics, and a 6:37 runtime that isn’t doing anyone any favors. It’s one of Eric’s two solo compositions on the record, and it shows the sharp contrast between his style and that of his bandmates.
“Sixteen”: After two snoozers, the band charges back with a prickly ska jam outfitted with circa-’78 Elvis Costello organ and a lyric about being a horny, spotty teenager trying to cop a feel. Gwen’s neither taunting nor commiserating with the youngster she’s addressing, just stating the facts.
“Sunday Morning”: Throughout Tragic Kingdom, Gwen is constantly gaining and losing the upper hand in her romantic adventures. On this 2 Tone-indebted punky reggae party -- which featured Specials singer Terry Hall in its video -- Gwen goes from victim to victor. “Thank you,” she sneers in the bridge, “Now you’re the parasite.”
“Don’t Speak”: Dumont puts a rose between his teeth, Gwen bares her soul, and Tony (the “you” in “you and me” being told not to speak), well, he hangs in like a champ on this Spanish-tinged ballad -- a ubiquitous radio smash in 1996. Gwen wrote the tune with her brother, and the lyrics couldn’t be more straightforward. When things ended for Gwen and Tony, there was nothing left to say yet plenty to sing about.
“You Can Do It”: It took every band member but Young to write this funky disco wah-wah-fest, a song that could be about Tony (“Let’s make an end to this sad, sad song”) or Eric (“Just come back and join us now”). Either way, it’s too self-conscious to groove, not lighthearted enough to feel like a lark. No Doubt would do dance music far more convincingly a couple albums later, on 2001’s Rocksteady.
“World Go ‘Round”: What is it about reggae rhythms and grand utopian sentiments? On this dippy conservationist jam, Gwen and the fellas kick one for the peeps in the Greenpeace tent.
“End It On This”: Perhaps inspired by Madness’ “Shut Up” and/or Abba’s “Waterloo,” Eric’s piano conspires with Dumont’s cool descending guitar line to save this from being just another punky song about Gwen and Tony’s split.
“Tragic Kingdom”: When Tim Burton makes a movie about cryogenically frozen Walt Disney and the darkness lurking beneath the surface of his California fantasyland, he can either hire former Oingo Boingo leader Danny Elfman to write the theme song or simply pay No Doubt for this, the disc’s carnivalesque ska closer. It’s written entirely by Eric, which is why “midgets that disguise themselves as tiny little dwarves” steal the spotlight from Princess Gwen and Prince Tony.