For all the storied sass she brings to tracks with marching-band samples and trashcan beats, Gwen Stefani sounds most commanding in songs that flirt with blush-making drippiness. Case in point: The Sweet Escape's breakup ballad "Early Winter," with its hundred-part harmonies and lyrics about falling leaves. Her nasal voice suits the whiny sentiment of the subject matter, but then, just before the chorus kicks in, she swoops through a throaty revelation with the line "The song's getting cold: It's snowing." It's a sly, powerful shift that finds her singing about nothing more than the song itself, and she owns it.

She owns a lot on The Sweet Escape, a messy but stirring follow-up to her terrific 2005 solo debut Love. Angel. Music. Baby. The strategy is much the same: She throws everything at a wall and giggles winningly at whatever falls to the floor. "Wind It Up" starts off with a Rodgers & Hammerstein sample and the kind of spooky bassline that makes British grime followers wax poetic about dystopian futurism. The title track finds Stefani doing frantic operatic playground scat over a barely-there Neptunes beat. In "Now That You Got It," she smacks her lips to a staccato Swizz Beatz track that mixes raspy drums with crunk militarism.


It's no small feat that Stefani sounds at home in all of the above. She's most focused when she's just playing around, and the logic-less diversity at work on The Sweet Escape gives her ample ammo to aim. It's the kind of album that drifts through '80s poolside jams and breathy trunk-bump bangers in all the best ways.