This 'singer's album' proves Cole’s long overdue return has been well worth the eight-year absence.
In concert, Paula Cole still sings "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?", her signature Top 10 hit from 1997, but these days the tune is no longer the Top 40 Adult Recurrent you remember. Instead, Cole sits at the piano and shifts the song's structure a bit so it's an altogether different, introspective performance. She is not, as Joni Mitchell once famously quipped about her own songs, a "human jukebox". If she is to perform the songs everybody knows, then those songs will damn well reflect the personal changes she's undergone since first recording them.
To paraphrase that famous title, the more pressing question for the past eight years has really been, "Where has Paula Cole gone?" After her last album, Amen (1999), didn't live up to sales expectations, Cole's disillusionment with the music industry catalyzed a move to the west coast where she raised her daughter, Sky, and considered an academic career at UCLA. She left her record label and all but forswore a career in music. However, if you looked closely enough over the past couple of years, Paula Cole wasn't completely in hiding: Annie Lennox sang a wrenching version of Cole's "Hush, Hush, Hush" on Herbie Hancock's Possibilities (2005) and Cole herself appeared on Chris Botti's When I Fall in Love (2004) and To Love Again (2005). Though a record deal fell through with Columbia (Botti's label), Decca brought Paula Cole aboard and gave her the opportunity to record an album completely free of the recent trends that have shaped other artists' high-profile returns to music making (i.e. this is not a covers album or duets project). If the quality of music on Courage is any indication, Cole's long overdue comeback has been well worth the eight-year absence.
Courage is a singer's album. The most commanding instrument here is Cole's voice, one that will enchant fans all over again. Those who only know Paula Cole from the once-ubiquitous "I Don't Want to Wait" will find there's plenty more to that powerfully elastic voice than the theme to "Dawson's Creek". Courage is also cathartic. It lays bare all of Cole's spiritual and personal trials from the past decade with an impressive candor. Emerging from the ashes are a warrior woman, a temptress, a poet, and an emancipated thinker. In fact, the spirit of Courage can best be described by a line from "14", one of many well-conceived tunes Cole (co) wrote for the album: "This mighty woman's ready to explode / Fire here below the surface of my volcano".
In the album's liner notes Cole writes, "That anyone is holding this album in their hands, reading these words, is a small miracle. It would not exist without Bobby Colomby." Producer Bobby Colomby (a founding member of Blood, Sweat and Tears) cajoled Cole back into recording. He gives her the royal treatment, enlisting an exceptional cadre of musicians including Herbie Hancock, David Foster, Ivan Lins, Chris Botti, and Paul Buchanan, but the spotlight shines brightest on the singer herself.
Cole's misty-eyed realization on "It's My Life" is the cartilage of the album's bones: "It's my life / And I am free / To live my life / The way I feel". The message may be simple, self-help 101, but anyone coming from a place of intense doubt and criticism - Cole's former manager said she would never work again - knows how the weight of those words cannot be underestimated.
In a maelstrom of critical self-reflection, Cole finds comfort on "Safe in Your Arms" and "I Wanna Kiss You". The former, co-written with Greg Phillinganes, buoyantly bounces along with a warmed reggae rhythm, while Latin percussion backs "I Wanna Kiss You", a sensual, seductive fantasy that teasingly complements the cover art of Cole's luscious red lips. "I wanna stop the conversation / I wanna kiss you / I wanna lean my body into yours", she whispers plaintively. After nearly an album's worth of songs about Cole's inner-turmoil, these two songs furnish a thematic lift to the listening experience.
A nod towards the jazzier, torch song side of Paula Cole surfaces on "Lonelytown", a tune wrapped in a cocktail-kissed piano melody played by Herbie Hancock. Her appearances on Chris Botti's albums revealed a keen understanding of traditional pop song phrasing. The appeal of "Lonelytown" suggests that an album-length immersion in this idiom would be rewarding for both performer and listeners.
It must be said, however, that Paula Cole's voice saves a couple of tracks from total schmaltz, particularly, "Hard to Be Soft" (a duet with Ivan Lins). The lyrics are too cute for their own good ("I wanna be a star / Like Marilyn Monroe / A Cinderella Fantasy / A naïve Clara Bow") and a stock samba arrangement does little to improve matters. Cole is such a skilled vocalist, though, that you can nearly forgive one or two ill-conceived ideas.
Most of the musical and lyrical ideas on Courage are triumphant. If there's any artist who deserves a second chance to alight listeners with her voice and inspire with her honesty it is Paula Cole. There's no need to ask where Paula Cole is anymore.