Paula Cole was part of a wave of singer-songwriters that crested about five or so years after an earlier set that included Tori Amos, Shawn Colvin, Tracy Chapman, and Sarah McLachlan. Of those forebears, Cole was, on the surface at least, most similar to McLachlan, not only in playing keyboards but also having a voice that was trained. Cole broke through on a worldwide scale with her second album, 1996’s Grammy-winning This Fire, and its two big hits, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait”. Unfortunately, a decision was made that she should share the 1997 Grammy spotlight with Shawn Colvin and Sarah McLachlan in a kind of “women’s medley”.
Whether the intention was good or not, one can’t know, but the unfortunate effect was as if someone were waving a banner reading, “Look! We’re drawing special attention to an obscure sub-set of popular music – women!” Cole immediately took risks in the aftermath of This Fire by coming out with 1999’s Amen. It’s was uncompromising set of songs characterized by “La Tonya”, in which she sang from the narrative viewpoint of a young woman of color, surveying diminished options and opportunities. It was an album that deserved to match its predecessor’s success. Next came a long break but Cole eventually re-emerged on the Decca label with some well-received gems. A couple of albums later, she went fully independent.
Despite breaking away from the big labels, Cole’s music has retained a fierceness, a bite and a sense of urgency. For an idea of just what it’s like to be caught up in the grinding machinations of the music industry, read this first-hand account from Cole. Where some of her peers have gone mellow and cozy, Cole, on the evidence of this, her ninth album, is fired up, ready to take on every strain of social justice, most notably challenging the sexual and social subjugation of women and the ongoing plight of racial minorities.
Cole’s image is also informative. All those years ago, she casually challenged the idea that women should be expected to have plucked, Barbie-doll armpits. The brilliant silver hair she now sports suggests she’s not someone for whom the pursuit of eternal youth is unduly appealing. There are more important things to grapple with, and aging is something to be embraced for the knowledge and wisdom it brings. Some of the artists who sprang up alongside her now have micro-managed public images and have retreated into making soft-focus, cup-of-cocoa, bedtime music. Meanwhile, Cole has stayed true to the social and political principles that guided her from the start.
Revolution takes on a vast amount of interconnected subject matter and uses an impressively diverse array of musical styles with which to put over its ideas. The opening title track features pianist Bob Thompson (a regular on NPR’s Mountain Stage) reading an excerpt from Martin Luther King’s speech of 4 April 1967, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”. It is set against a backdrop of marching drums. Cole makes her first entrance, singing a kind of call-to-action mantra, “revolution is a state of mind”, with some fiery ululations from none other than the great Nona Hendryx. It sets the tone for what follows, a robust, intense album bursting with ideas. Revolution returns again and again to the subject of inner revolution, of every human’s capacity to find the inner strength they may not know they possess, to confront their circumstances and challenge bigotry.
Revolution‘s 11 (13 on the double-vinyl edition) tracks are exceptionally well-sequenced, the pacing near-faultless. Something like the electrifying gospel/hoe-down fusion of “Shake the Sky” is followed by the profoundly wistful ballad, “Blues in Gray”, about female talent being severed at the roots by social convention. From one song to the next, Cole’s lovely piano accompaniments are given prominence in the mix, weaving in and out of the arrangements, sometimes fresh and airy, sometimes bracing, provided by her core band: Ross Gallagher (bass), Max Weinstein/Jay Bellerose (drums), Chris Bruce (guitars and production). Along with Nona Hendryx, other featured guests include Darcel Wilson (vocals) and Meshell Ndegeocello.
The most arresting song on the album is “Silent”, for which Cole tries out a different writing style – a kind of first-person prose set to music. The words sometimes fit the music like the recitative sections of an opera, but it works. It’s a kind of potted history of Cole’s growing consciousness. At the outset of the song, she is admitted to a cool friendship group that enables her to mock others as a distraction from self-loathing. Then the action moves forward in time to a moment in Europe when her tour manager attempts to molest her while her guard is down. Finally, there’s a more recent occasion when she feels out of sorts at a social gathering where old-school gender apartheid reigns, with the women chit-chatting in the kitchen while the men kick back in the parlor.
Each vignette is sung to the same, deceptively soothing melody and it ranks as one of the finest bits of autobiographical songwriting Cole has ever committed to record. It’s also an effective broadside that Cole levels not only at the people who exploit the silence of others — the bullies, the boorish, presumptuous men, the violent — but also against herself and any of us who have ever chosen the expediency or convenience of silence over standing up and saying something. “No more shall I be the deaf and dumb submissive,” she vows. It’s extremely well done, combining subtle observations with blunt reportage (“Dick and tongue pressed hard / What a sad excuse of a man”), wrapped up in lullaby-like music.
Fans of the more commercial writing with which Cole established herself on her second album, This Fire, are not left out; there is “Go On”, with anthemic chorus hooks that puncture on first listen and “All Or Nothing”, with memorably celestial vocal harmonies. In fact, even the more challenging songs come dressed in very genial, attractive melodies.
Halfway through comes a Marvin Gaye cover, “The Ecology (Mercy Mercy Me)”. Some might question the need to interrupt an exceptional program of original songs with a cover, particularly of a song so widely covered already. Nevertheless, in both its sound and its subject matter, it’s fitting, and placing it directly in the middle, like a dividing line or an intermission, is a good move. The presence of two extra tracks on the vinyl edition piques my curiosity. Those of us who came of age in the 1980s will remember how record companies aggressively steered us away from vinyl by putting extra tracks on the compact disc editions of albums. The prospect that we might now be pushed in the opposite direction is hardly one to be relished. But maybe this was just a case of not wanting to present a blank fourth side.
In any case, in either of its presentations, Revolution is an exceptional piece of work, a timely reminder of how soulful, perceptive and harrowing a writer and singer Cole is and has always been. It neither sags nor wears out its welcome. The songs that come towards the end, in particular “Universal Empathy”, which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Teena Marie’s Congo Square album (2010, Universal) and the epic “Hope Is Everywhere”, which morphs from a trip-hop soul ballad into an all-out dance banger, are urgent and mobilising. Of course, Cole is most likely in sync politically with her fanbase, who are sure to love Revolution. But I hope the music will also reach other people who could benefit from hearing these bold, highly melodic polemics and cris de coeurs, and having their views challenged.