As with “Breakfast At Tiffany’s”, “Don’t Speak” is a rarity: an American modern rock hit that managed to duck under Britpop’s Crimplene Curtain and chart here. In the US, it dominated airplay charts for months – no surprise No Doubt’s UK label sensed a hit in waiting. And like “Breakfast”, it’s one side of a break-up conversation – but where Deep Blue Something grasped at the thinnest of straws to keep something alive, Gwen Stefani knows it’s over, and seems just to want to dodge the final blow. There’s another parallel, too: “The Winner Takes It All”, also an intra-band break up record. That’s a magnificent song, but also pure theatre: a man’s fantasy of how his ex-wife might be feeling. “Don’t Speak” – written by the jilted member – goes to messier places.
No Doubt apparently tried a few arrangements for “Don’t Speak” – from the raw to the bouncy – before settling on this slightly skewed take on the power ballad, building its drama from the now-established quiet-loud dynamics of alt-rock. Bits of other ideas poke through – ominous movie theme chords on the “it’s all ending” middle eight ratchet up the tension; the Spanish guitar solo immediately dissipates it. It’s all filling in gaps in the song’s odd, potent structure – each twee sing-song verse gets cut off sooner and sooner before the chorus, the song shutting itself up repeatedly as the situation spirals downwards into pain.
The final verse – “I can see us dying / are we?” – is pure fake-out, jumping straight back into the chorus, but this time punching through it into the brutal coda that’s the best thing about “Don’t Speak”, Stefani keening the title and eventually fading into a grieving, desperate lullaby. In between, she turns the record on its head. “I know you’re good, I know you’re good, I know you’re real good”, she sings – angry for the first time in the song, snarling the word “good” with deserved contempt for every man who ever reasoned his way through a break-up, picking words not to spare his lover, but to sustain himself as the nice guy. She was never trying to silence him to keep him – that boat has sailed, and they both know it. She just wanted to still respect him afterwards.