Gwen Stefani, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. Poor Gwen Stefani, all heartbroken on “Used to Love You,” the launch single from her long-delayed album that set the stage for what seemed like a return to the rawness of her No Doubt days. Uncertainty and sadness and the rebuilding of her self-confidence – in just four minutes, the not-a-Hollaback-girl’s face scaled the full scope of emojis. In fact, the single and its understated video said more than the album that would follow a few months later. No, This Is What the Truth Feels Like isn’t the breakup confessional it wants you to think it is, and its truth-telling is only pop-star real, guised by indistinguishable trend chasers. With so few inspired offerings in its factory of store-bought Top 40 beats (among them, yes, a Gwen rap), what’s good? Gwen and her moxie are on the mend thanks to Blake Shelton, her current beau, so there’s that. She sings about it on the enjoyable “Make Me Like You,” gushing like a little girl smacked by love’s newness over a dizzying disco skate sound. In places, her feelings are raw and real. This is true of “Used to Love You,” which channels vulnerability and anger-turned-defiance into a seam-busting chorus that turns a literal twinkle into a typhoon of woeful dramatics. Greg Kurstin produces the folk-pop stargazer “Rare,” which refreshingly flavors the album’s predictable fare with some much-needed acoustic-guitar-assisted rawness before it reaches a dreamy Kylie-esque chorus wherein Gwen confesses she’s “broken and insecure” and feels “worthless.” It’s the same kind of messy authenticity you wish was mirrored in more of this music. Two stars.
Bonnie Raitt, Dig in Deep. Imagine if Bonnie Raitt sang Donald Trump’s tweets. The point is, Bonnie Raitt — who performs live at the Winspear on April 26 — can make the ugliest things beautiful. And for the last four decades, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s soulful rasp has done just that, turning sadness into catharsis, all the while demonstrating such impressive and seemingly effortless guitar skills she could nail performances in her sleep. And because, yes, good things happen in this world too, she has a new album out. Cue the heartbreak, right? On “The Ones We Couldn’t Be,” a ballad you listen to with the lights out, Raitt’s voice is Namaste for the soul, working over the delicate keys slowly, soothingly, resting in just the right places, aching with just the right amount of ache. It’s a perfect ballad, but of course it is: Raitt knows her way around a tearjerker just as we know deep breaths and thinking happy thoughts won’t block the pain of a Bonnie ballad (you’re still recovering from Raitt’s 1991 Grammy winner “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and you know it). “I Knew” is good because it sounds like it should have already been included on a Best Of; the song is right within Raitt’s bluesy ’90s-era wheelhouse, and that chorus and its key change — during which she pleads “I would’ve run, but I couldn’t run; I would’ve flown, but I couldn’t fly” – is golden. All of Dig in Deep, though, calls for repeated plays, unraveling its lyrical truths layer by layer and doing the blues as only Bonnie Raitt can. Three-and-a-half stars.
Zayn, Mind of Mine. Ex-One Direction member Zayn Malik is damning his boy-band days with an act of rebellion that’s apparently indicative of adulthood: random caps. Though the 23-year-old’s solo debut goes to extremes to cut the 1D cord (like Cher, he calls himself, simply, Zahn), thankfully it’s far less contrived than his grammar riot suggests. “rEaR vIeW” builds into a warm, electro looped, vibing with a Frank Ocean-meets-Miguel chicness that masks any traces of boy-banding. But it’s Malik’s falsetto, offering plenty of coo-y eargasms, that’s the most potent potion on Mind of Mine. Mmmmm. Let freedom ring. Three stars.
K. Michelle, More Issues Than Vogue. Can I get back the fucks that I gave you? R&B’s song slayer K. Michelle knows she can’t, but she can do the next best thing: Give even less of them now. Leaving no shade unshaded, the reality star puts it all on the line on her third album, blasting “all kinds of hos” on the guitar-tickled rap “Mindful.” Even juicier is “These Men,” when she gives a good tongue-lashing to the sleazy cheats in her life – over a sweet, swaying girl-group groove, naturally. It’s true: K’s out for blood (she even compares herself to Uma Thurman in Kill Bill), and throughout More Issues Than Vogue, her greatest weapon is her voice. Three stars.
— Chris Azzopardi