No Doubt - Tragic Kingdom (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

No Doubt

Tragic Kingdom (1995)

Trauma / Interscope

It’s weird to think about No Doubt as a small band from Orange County, but that’s what they were back in 1995. They had two albums under their belt, but hadn’t hit the big time yet. The band was also going through changes. Founding member and primary songwriter Eric Stefani left the band, feeling pressure from labels and band members alike. This opened the gates for a unique new talent, one Gwen Stefani.

In a time when grunge was running rampant, Stefani stood on the cover of Tragic Kingdom in a bright red dress smiling like a '50s pin-up. She was self-assured but vulnerable. She batted her dark eyelashes ironically, fitting into and challenging gender stereotypes. At the time there was no one like her. She didn’t have a guitar. She wasn’t rock and roll cool (yet). She sure as hell wasn’t indie. But she wasn’t a typical pop star either. There was nothing that seemed insincere or unapproachable about her. She had a razor sharp edge and a bright voice during a characteristically bleak time in music.

But No Doubt was a band, not just Stefani. And though she often shied away from it, they were a third-wave ska band. But they were poppy too, perfectly lubricating themselves onto mainstream radio. And they were real musicians. Tony Kanal absolutely owned his bass, constructing a whole album’s worth of memorable lines. He and drummer Adrian Young formed one of the most energetic and entertaining rhythm sections, audibly and visually. The two were rock stars in the making determined not to be overshadowed by their burgeoning starlet. Guitarist Tom Dumont always maintained his easy Southern California cool with his playful upstrokes. In a band of wild weirdos trying to grab the spotlight, he seemed happy to steer clear of the drama and play the shit out of his guitar. Let us not forget about the two touring/session musicians No Doubt have maintained throughout their career, Gabrial McNair and Stephen Bradley. Arguably the ska soul of the band, the two killer multi-instrumentalists added the necessary flourishes that defined the band’s sound.

Tragic Kingdom felt like a breakup album. Whether that’s because of the Stefani/Kanal breakup, the other Stefani/No Doubt breakup, or because life has a way of getting you down, the themes were not happy by nature no matter how upbeat the music stayed. Stefani’s experiences bled into all of Tragic Kingdom. From “Just a Girl,” where she took shots at society’s definition of a woman to “Don’t Speak,” about the deterioration of her and Kanal’s seven-year relationship, she left it all on the table. Years from now, women and men alike will be worshipping at the altar of Gwen Stefani due to this album.

Revisiting Tragic Kingdom years later clears up a few things. For one, the singles were absolute gold, still standouts on the hour-long record. The first three,“Just a Girl,” “Spiderwebs” and “Don’t Speak," are quite possibly the band’s three strongest tracks to date. You’re as likely to hear these songs on modern rock radio as you are some trendy one hit wonder. The following three, “Excuse Me Mr.,” “Happy Now?” and “Sunday Morning," while understandably less popular are gems in their own right and, on a weaker album, would have made more of a splash. “Happy Now?” popped out as the single deserving a fairer shot than it got.

But the album is not all winners. “The Climb” is a real trudge to get through, and the last third of the album isn’t quite as memorable as the rest, feeling more like filler on an already long album. However, the closing title track ends Tragic Kingdom on a high note that sounds better now than it did back then.

Tragic Kingdom went diamond a little over four years after its release. With a solid seven singles, its lasting imprint on pop culture is clear, from the ska explosion of the mid '90s to the rebellious nature of Paramore's Hayley Williams. Almost twenty years later, No Doubt recently released Push & Shove, a marginal record made by exceptional musicians. That album felt like a throwback to a different time but with all the heavy production tools of today. It was No Doubt wanting the world to know they had not forgotten their roots. They were still a pop ska/reggae band from Orange County.

But they’re all millionaires now. Stefani is a regular on The Voice and has a fashion line and solo career to worry about as well. All the members are happily married with families. Life is not the same as it was in 1995. Making one of the most popular records from the past 20 years will allow that. Maybe they’ll never make another album, and, if they do, it sure won’t have the same influence as Tragic Kingdom, but, damn, do they still have their energy. No Doubt are not a by-the-numbers live band. When they perform, they play like their lives depend on it, never letting the audience nor their bodies know they are well into their 40s. It is hard to think of a band more willing to embrace the past and show they’ve never lost that initial spark and love for creating great pop music. Oh, and they’ll probably close with something off Tragic Kingdom.