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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Mr. Bright Side

Demon-free and happy, Gavin Rossdale goes solo

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Gavin Rossdale was never a particularly convincing tortured soul to begin with, but with each passing year of domestic bliss with his superstar wife, Gwen Stefani, each picture of the photogenic couple and their beaming son, and each celebrity tennis tournament, it became even harder to buy the sun-tanned family man as the embodiment of existential despair.

  The former Bush frontman gave his old tormented persona one last spin in 2005, teaming with members of Helmet to record a lone album of thrashing, seething alternative rock with a short-lived new band, Institute. In hindsight, that instantly forgotten album now sounds like Rossdale’s mid-life crisis, a rebellion against the inevitable taming that comes with age. By the time he returned to the studio, sans band, to record his polite new solo record, Wanderlust, Rossdale had learned to stop rebelling.

  “I’d already done an album that was filled with hard, driving guitars with Institute, so I didn’t feel the need to go down that path again,” Rossdale says. “I could do something a bit softer, something that put more emphasis on my vocals.”

  That’s the press-release explanation for his new record, but of course there were also pragmatic reasons behind Rossdale’s switch from unrelenting hard-rock to housewife-friendly soft-rock.

  Rossdale admits that he was shaken by Institute’s swift failure. He realized that commercial redemption would require a drastic change of course, but in today’s bearish music industry, earning that second chance was a challenge. The three years that it took to release Wanderlust were marked by, as Rossdale worded it in his liner notes, “delays, detours, surprises and extreme weather.”

  “With the state of the music industry being what it is, it’s become much harder to even get a record made at all,” Rossdale explains. “It’s not what it used to be. Artists are being dropped and employees are being laid off.”

  An overt bid for “American Idol” audiences, Wanderlust is the type of smooth contemporary rock album that critics absolutely loathe, a market-tested collection of swollen ballads and defanged guitar riffs, but it’s not as bad as the typical review suggests. Rossdale’s signature vocal tics—the strained, raspy moans and the conflicted pauses—have survived the transition, and they lend just enough drama to a set that otherwise eschews the catharsis of Bush’s albums. Wanderlust may be Rossdale’s first truly happy record: Instead of brooding in sorrow, he seems to be basking in contentment.

  Rossdale half rejects the suggestion that Wanderlust is an expression of his familial fulfillment, pointing out that the only song on the album that directly cites fatherhood (“Frontline,” where Rossdale sings “I miss my wife and family”) is an anti-war song, told from a soldier’s perspective, not his. But the record’s many “you and I against the world” love songs, he concedes, are autobiographical.

  “Ask anyone who’s married and they’ll tell you that if you write a love song and it’s not about your wife, there’s hell to pay,” Rossdale says.

Gavin Rossdale does a career-spanning set at the Pabst Theater on Friday, July 11, at 8 p.m.

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