“Life Goes On.” What a perfect title for the first song on the new CD from Paula Cole, who struck pop gold in the mid-1990s with “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and the ubiquitous “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Not long after the latter gained eternal earworm status as the theme song for Dawson’s Creek, Cole retreated to relative obscurity amid, among other factors, rapidly changing popular tastes. Now she has re-emerged, as an indie artist for the first time, with a new disc funded through a Kickstarter campaign.
“Life Goes On,” the song, displays Cole’s well-known melodic and lyrical talent, which sits comfortably, if occasionally uneasily, between lovely aesthetic vistas and cliché. It’s followed by “Strong Beautiful Woman” which picks up the theme in a milk-chocolately style that harks back to Carly Simon, as Cole again sings of the passing years, but this time with words of encouragement and assurance to someone – a daughter? a friend? herself? – that tip into over-earnestness, coming a little too close to “self-esteem” pop psychology. Fortunately this is not a general tendency, and all is forgiven with the driving Americana pop gem “Eloise,” the entirety of whose lovely chorus is, “Eloise, Eloise / Forgive me please.” (Fans will appreciate the numerous doses Cole gives us, throughout the album, of her famous soaring head voice.) “Eloise” is an irresistible tale of jealousy, violence, and (perhaps) abiding love.
The cleverly titled “Sorrow-on-the-Hudson” chronicles in sad poetics the end of a relationship, with another gorgeous melody, this one infused with high drama. “Manitoba,” by contrast, carries a rhythmic tension reminiscent of early Tori Amos; though it strains a metaphor, it’s more about the sonic emotion than the words, with insistent vamps climaxing in piercing high notes that decisively deny over-analysis.
The subtle “Scream” took me three listens to appreciate. It forms the soft center of the CD, and segues into the pop power ballad “Imaginary Man,” a dreamy, relatively weak number that lacks Cole’s more typically pointed lyric-writing and overstays its welcome through a bloated orchestral buildup. Things get cracking again with the anxiously rootsy “Billy Joe,” which features Tony Levin’s Chapman stick playing, and the sly “Secretary” with its grungy dynamic contrasts, primal yowls, and turning-the-tables fantasy.
“I am just the song I have today,” she sings in the closing number, “Red Corsette,” and it’s a fitting sum-up. It’s Cole’s mastery of musical-emotional colors and contrasts, combined with the thrilling things she does with her voice, that makes this disc a keeper. Without breaking dramatically with the youthful angst she gave voice to in the ’90s, she’s evolved a strong and sophisticated vocabulary of smartly constructed adult pop that’s eminently accessible yet all her own.