In the latest of our 90s album discussions, David Nilsen and I tackle No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom. Don’t worry; this time we agree on stuff. You can also read our previous discussions of albums by Hole, Tori Amos, Oasis, and Garbage.
David Nilsen: So, Tragic Kingdom.
Katy Goodwin-Bates: Wait. Is that a comment on today’s politics or a reference to the No Doubt album?
David: This is one of the first albums we’ve discussed that I fell hard for as soon as it was released. Through a weird set of circumstances, my religiously sheltered family had cable television starting in 1995. How my parents allowed MTV into the house, I have no idea, but whenever they were out of the house, I watched it non-stop. An unhealthy amount of my sex-ed came from shows like Loveline, Singled Out, and Sex in the 90s. This—along with the local top 40 station I listened to in my room quietly and secretly at night—was also how I kept up with popular music in junior high and early high school (for those younger readers, this was back when MTV played music videos). When “Don’t Speak” came out, I was floored.
Also—I’m just going to be honest here—it began a raging crush on Gwen Stefani that lasted for the next five years of my life.
How did you find the album and the band?
Katy: I am still hoping to be Gwen Stefani when I grow up.
I came to the band and album in basically the same way; Don’t Speak was all over music TV and national radio and became a total anthem. I remember asking for Tragic Kingdom on CD in lieu of an Easter egg in 1996 and my sister being outraged because a CD cost twice as much as a chocolatey treat.
I definitely spent a few lunch breaks at my all girls’ school standing on the tables with the rest of my form and belting out Don’t Speak. Because it was that or Latin homework.
David: That’s a fun mental image. Sounds like something from a movie.
Katy: Also subjected to this treatment: Always by Bon Jovi and I’ll Never Break Your Heart by the Backstreet Boys. We were an eclectic bunch.
David: 1 for 3 isn’t bad, I guess.
Katy: More than any of the other albums we’ve discussed, I feel like Tragic Kingdom has always been with me. It’s one of the albums I feel most familiar with and it’s been with me through everything.
David: Yeah, it’s probably been with me longer than almost any other. Or at least, no album I still love has been with me longer. I found Oasis around the same time, but my feelings about Oasis have definitely changed since then. I still love No Doubt, and this album is still fantastic.
Katy: I feel like it sounds like 1996 but in a profoundly good way.
David: It’s strange the way this album has aged. It does sound like a distinctly 90s album, and yet it doesn’t sound dated at all. You would think with as singular as their sound was it would be super dated, but it isn’t. All the best tracks are still fresh.
Katy: I feel this is partly a reflection on terrible music of 2017 and its preceding years. If everything sounded like Tragic Kingdon the world would be a nicer place.
Which are your favourite tracks?
David: Oh, there is still good music. Come now.
Katy: Go on. Like what?
David: Sufjan Stevens, Perfume Genius, Arcade Fire, The National, Saint Etienne, Allie X, LP, Manita Nerviosas, Father John Misty… How many do I need to list?
Katy: Some that have actually come out in this decade? Saint Etienne are older than me! Also I am worried that Arcade Fire have lost it.
David: Saint Etienne have a new album out.
Katy: But surely you can hardly class them as the sound of 2017?
David: Wait. Does this have to be artists who debuted this year?
Because No Doubt formed in the late 80s. First album was 1992. By that measure, they aren’t the sound of 1995 either.
Katy: BUT Tragic Kingdom was a huge album of 1996. Sadly, 2017 is going to be remembered as the year of Ed Sheeran.
Katy: I think it came out in 96 over here. Anyway, which songs do you like?
David: Well, let’s start at the beginning. Spiderwebs is a fantastic opening track. Sets the tone both in mood and sound for the entire album.
Katy: I love Spiderwebs too. My cat frequently returns from her outside jaunts covered in actual spiderwebs and I like to serenade her with this song.
David: I feel like this is one of those albums where the singles are consistently the best songs.
Spiderwebs, Just a Girl, Don’t Speak, Sunday Morning…
Katy: Sunday Morning barely sold any copies here and I forgot Spiderwebs was a single.
I have been thinking about our little aside about music in 2017. You are right: obviously there is good music still being made. Here in the UK, at least, the problem is finding it. Mainstream radio (by which I mean BBC Radio One) essentially plays the same three songs all day and just pretends they’re by different people. Or I am getting old. I listen to BBC 6music, which is less mainstream and a lot more alternative, and I do hear great songs every day on there, but they aren’t songs that most people will ever listen to. That was my point about the musical zeitgeist; the artists you mentioned in your rebuttal are all cool and undoubtedly their output remains strong, but—aside from Arcade Fire—they aren’t going to be particularly well-known which, to me, means they won’t be the wider sound of 2017. Everyone I knew in the mid-90s (admittedly, all teenage girls) had Tragic Kingdom and worshipped Gwen Stefani. I don’t see anything that I am inspired by having that effect now. Maybe we just have too much music these days? Do you find that you listen to new music much? By which I mean new bands. My listening is basically divided into: 90s bands; the Strokes and their contemporaries; late 70s punk plus Blondie; gloomy white boy bands, and random female-led groups I seek out on Spotify. I spend a lot of time immersed in nostalgia.
Incidentally, I think you would massively disapprove of my love for some of my favourite bands. I like to pretend I’m cool but it probably isn’t true.
David: I won’t disapprove of you as long as you don’t disapprove of me. I’m over “guilty pleasures.” We’re complicated human beings and we like things that seem contradictory sometimes. I’m a Lana Del Rey fan. I don’t know what to say.
I do try to seek out new music. I haven’t listened to the radio more than half a dozen times in the last 5 years, I bet, so I don’t know much of what’s on there. My assumption is it’s mostly terrible, or at least incredibly repetitive. I look for good tips in magazines or websites. I find Bitch has really good recommendations. I listen to a lot of older stuff too, of course, but I try to have new things on a regular basis to inject life into my listening and make sure I don’t stagnate.
I think you’re right though that the “sound” of 2017 as based on what’s popular or on the radio is going to be depressing and forgettable compared to the popular sounds of 1985 or 1995. Some of that is accessibility. As more music is available to everyone because of the internet, there’s no longer a need to try to push good stuff to the top and be on the top 40. So that shit gets more and more corporate and bland. I think there’s probably more actual good music now, it’s just diversified across so many different media channels that there is no one “sound” that most of the culture recognizes.
As for Tragic Kingdom, it’s really, really good. Going back to my earlier point, it’s unusual for an album that was had such a distinctive sound 20+ years ago to still be fresh today, but it totally is. Maybe that’s why it’s fresh—because it didn’t sound like 1995/6 at the time.
Spiderwebs is such a great opening track. It’s so much fun. So singable and dance-worthy. Great way to open the album. That chorus.
Katy: Agreed. Spiderwebs sounds like nothing else and it’s a great statement of intent for an album that doesn’t really sound like anything else. It’s really joyous.
David: Speaking of statements of intent, Just a Girl is the band’s anthem and spiritual manifesto, right? This is their philosophical core?
Katy: Discovering that song as a 13 year old girl was amazing; I hadn’t been confronted with much in the way of sexism at that point but Just a Girl really lit a fire for me. Sadly, it’s become more of an anthem on a personal level as I’ve grown up (yay, progress), but that doesn’t diminish my joy in hearing it. I love how angry it is, from Gwen’s snarling vocal to the lyrics, especially the arms-in-air exasperation of “lucky me!”
It’s one of my favourite songs of ever.
I love some of the lesser-played tracks too. Different People has always been a big favourite for me and the last two tracks are massive tunes.
I always particularly liked the bit in Different People about the two sisters: “so different yet so the same…it’s rare that two can get along but when they do they’re inseparable.” That sums up my relationship with my sister. Gwen, how did you know?
David: Different Now is really fun, for sure. I like the guitar part in Happy Now? too.
Hey You and The Climb both feel pretty forgettable. Evidenced by the fact I forgot about them till I listened to this again.
Sixteen is great. Feels like the thematic b-side to Just a Girl. Was this a single too? I can’t remember.
Katy: I actually really like The Climb. It’s not the best song ever but I like how it builds and kind of soars.
The B-side of Just a Girl was actually Open the Gate which is (to use a phrase I know you enjoy) a TOTAL BANGER.
David: I’m not sure I know that one.
Katy: You have to look it up. I was obsessed with it.
David: I will do that.
At any rate, I love Sixteen.
And Sunday Morning. This is one of my favorites on the album.
Katy: Sixteen, weirdly, is one of my least favourites on the album. As a teenager I felt like it wasn’t melodic enough to be nice to listen to but at the same time not shouty enough to be a soundtrack to slamming the bedroom door. I mean, I probably didn’t describe it so pretentiously in the mid 90s but that’s what I meant.
I do like Sunday Morning though.
You know, I find it surprisingly difficult to analyse this album. I just enjoy it so much it’s hard to achieve any kind of academic distance. And I feel like I’ve never really been away from it, whereas with the other albums we’ve discussed I’ve had to revisit them and been able to come up with actual thoughts. With Tragic Kingdom my instinct is really just to wave my arms around and shriek over each song.
David: That makes sense.
Have you seen No Doubt in concert? I saw them in 2002 on their Rock Steady tour.
Katy: No! I am now insanely jealous.
David: They rocked. I was on the floor about 20 feet from the stage. And, so, from Gwen Stefani.
Katy: Oh stop. How does her voice sound live?
David: They sounded legitimately good. There wasn’t a drop off.
David: She improvised a few lyrics, which was fun. “Should have thought of that before we kissed” on Ex-Girlfriend got turned into “fucked,” while she flipped off the crowd. I’m sure all the soccer moms who brought their 10 year olds (a lot of them in the stands) were probably less than thrilled.
The Distillers opened, and were fun. Unfortunately, so did Good Charlotte, and they sucked.
Katy: Some interesting conversations were probably had on the drive home.
I LOVE Distillers. I used to listen to them super loud on headphones on the way out of a shitty, soul-destroying office job every day. Everyone else in the lift was terrified of me.
I like to think Gwen inspired a lot of those 10 year olds to start awesome bands. She’s a great rock role model.
David: Right? We can only hope.
Well, we’ve come to Don’t Speak.
Katy: I mean, what can you say about that song? It’s a great big 90s behemoth. I’d go so far as to say it’s bordering on perfection. Gwen manages vulnerability and rage and heartache and the overall effect is to make me wish I had a really painful breakup in my past to relate it to (rather than just a mediocre episode involving a nerdy politics student who just didn’t want a girlfriend). A lot of the big songs from the 90s make me cringe or roll my eyes now (Bittersweet Symphony, I’m looking at you) but Don’t Speak remains perfection. I assume you completely agree with all these reflections.
David: Don’t Speak is damn near sonic perfection. Those opening chords are so warm, and everything about it is…well…
This song is an achievement. It is all the things you said.
It’s really an outlier on the album. This isn’t a “fun” song, or a danceable one, really. It has more in common with baroque 80s power ballads. While far better, it has more in common with Still Loving You by The Scorpions than it does with the rest of the No Doubt sound.
I love the Latin sound to the guitar solo/bridge.
I wonder if Don’t Speak is my favorite radio single of the 90s? I haven’t really thought about it before. It might be. That sounds like something I should probably waste a lot of time figuring out.
Katy: I think great radio singles of the 90s is a whole other epic discussion. Creep would have to be up there.
You’re right about Don’t Speak having a different vibe. Even when they get mellow elsewhere, it’s more of a reggae/ska infused sound whereas Don’t Speak is its own marvellous thing.
Incidentally, are you aware of the No Doubt Christmas song? It is called Oi! To the World and it is a genius.
David: I don’t think I have heard that one. If I have, I’ve forgotten.
As a teenager, I would imagine I was in a band. I would listen to my favorite songs and imagine they were ours and picture being on stage playing them (full disclosure: I still sometimes do this). Don’t Speak was one of our biggest hits.
Katy: I have a playlist on my iPod consisting of all my imaginary band’s songs. This is completely normal.
David: Good. I do too. It’s called “Why Can’t I Be You?” (that is the real, actual name of the playlist).
Katy: I am going to need to know what’s on it.
David: That feels like reading my diary.
So, No Doubt then. “You Can Do It” reminds me of Teena Marie.
Katy: I will need to consult Google to see if I agree with that. Just reading the title has now embedded that song in my brain. I am nodding along. I am pretty sure I look like a crazy person. The hit rate of actual brilliant songs on this album must be better than basically any other record ever.
David: Most people know Teena Marie from the song Lead Me On on the Top Gun soundtrack.
You might hate me for this, but I’m not big on the final three tracks. I feel like the album is maybe a track or two too long.
Katy: Oh no! The final 2 tracks are my favourites. I love the title track; it’s so bombastic and huge. It is No Doubt’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
David: They’re your favorites? On the entire album?
Katy: Let me think about this. Aside from Don’t Speak and Just a Girl, yes. I think so. They must be the tracks I’ve listened to the most. End it on This is on my special playlist of songs my imaginary band plays. So yes, in spite of your obvious incredulity and derision, they are in my top 5 songs on this album. Drops mic.
David: Katy, you dropped your mic. You should probably pick it back up.
Katy: No. The mic stays dropped.
David: Give me a few minutes to listen to these songs again and decide how you’re wrong.
Katy: I will wait.
David: End It On This is fine? I like it because I like No Doubt, but I maintain my position. It’s not a standout for me.
Katy: I like to think of it as a sequel to Don’t Speak. Gwen’s like “you know, halfway through this album I was proper sad about this breakup but now it’s the penultimate track and let’s just finish it already.” Of course, the final track having “tragic” in the title somewhat undermines my theory of the album’s narrative arc.
David: You know, listening with fresh ears to Tragic Kingdom, I think I get what you’re saying. It’s still not in my top 5 for the album, but I totally get where you’re coming from. I never would have thought of the Bohemian Rhapsody comparison, but I think that’s apt. Good call. It has a baroque, disorienting, at times frenzied quality that makes it an appropriate end to the album.
Katy: I think all bands need a Bo-Rhap to call their own. If I ran the music world, that and having an original Christmas song would be requirements. So No Doubt would be top of the class on both counts.