Paula Cole is one year shy of celebrating 20 years in the music industry. The singer, songwriter, producer and musician enjoyed a commercial breakthrough in 1996 when her album This Fire won critical acclaim and spawned the hits singles Where Have All The Cowboys Gone? and I Don’t Want To Wait (which became the theme tune for Dawson’s Creek). Since that album Cole’s commercial success has been variable but the acclaim from the critics has been consistent. Her last album Ithaca was released in 2010 through Decca records but now Cole is pursuing the path of an independent artist with her new album Raven.
Raven is an album that was funded via Cole’s fans through Kickstarter. Craving creative freedom and the ability to express herself without limitations through music, Cole decided to pursue the independent route and see what it brought for her. The result was reaching 150% of her goal proving that whilst commercial success may have diminished in recent years, her fanbase certainly hasn’t.
For Raven Cole is coming full circle in many ways. The story-telling aspect of her 1994 debut Harbinger is the forefront of the record whilst musically it stands out as modern and as bold as anything she’s released before. Entirely produced by Cole, Raven is an honest and at times unflinching look at the themes of life, love, sex and feminism. Opening with an observation on the passing of time with Life Goes On, the album gently reintroduces you to Cole’s wonderfully emotive voice whilst reminding you what a creative force she is.
Anyone who has listened to a Paula Cole record knows that she isn’t afraid to experiment with her sound and push boundaries. Raven does that with every song as Cole offers variety and a generous serving of different sounds. Lead single Eloise, originally written for the late Solomon Burke, is a mid-tempo acoustic number that sees Cole narrating the story about a person’s relationship with the titular character Eloise. ‘We fell out of love and started looking around’ Cole sings shortly before pleading, ‘Eloise, Eloise, forgive me please.’ The tenderness of her vocal is moving as the tale of mistakes and hope for a second chance winds to its conclusion.
Strong Beautiful Woman is one of the more uptempo tracks on the record and is an anthem that will inspire women across the world. The song is perhaps the most commercial on the record but one that will strike a chord with Cole’s female fans. ‘You’ll be a strong, beautiful woman and I won’t let the world let you down,’ Cole sings with assurance. On the flipside is Imaginary Man which sees Cole singing about being alone but dreaming of finding that happy ending. It also contains one of the most powerful vocals on the record.
The darker songs on the album are some of the finer moments. The moody Billy Joe explodes with Cole’s gut-wrenching vocal as she seemingly confesses to betraying their relationship. Over and over for the songs final 30 seconds she calls ‘Billy Joe, Billy Joe’ allowing her voice to soar and sending shivers down your spine. Secretary, a song that Cole discussed with us during our recent interview, is a song the simmers with sexual desire teasing your ears before unleashing its full force as Cole moves from her near-whisper vocal to full-on belt. The effect is magnificent capturing the sexuality of the song and the satisfaction that comes from giving in to your lust.
Elsewhere on the record the gorgeous piano ballad Sorrow-on-the-Hudson is one of the more restrained moments, Manitoba shimmers with an almost military beat and Why Don’t You Go? Brings tears to your eyes as Cole utilises her falsetto to emotive effect during the chorus.
When it comes to standout tracks though there are two on the album that jump out and demand repeated listens. They are Scream and album closer Red Corsette. Scream does the complete opposite of your expectations by keeping things restrained with Cole never leaving her sing-whisper vocal. The song perfectly captures that moment when you desperately want to scream at a situation but can’t find it within yourself to let it out. Red Corsette on the other hand recalls This Fire’s Nietzsche’s Eyes stripping everything back to a classical-influenced piano melody. It’s a stunning and bold way to close the record with Cole at her most emotive. Her vibrato floats over the piano melody with interjections of her powerful belt to emphasise certain lyrics. ‘I am not your enemy’ she sings before admitting ‘all I have is melody and pain.’ The lyrics are so startingly honest and raw that you can’t help but feel something.
Raven is perhaps Cole’s boldest work since the criminally underrated Amen in 1999. Away from the major label pressures and influences Cole can let her music breathe and artistically she’s at her truest. Raven is such a special collection of songs and we’re glad that Cole has been given the freedom, thanks to her fans, to record an album that is pure and simply her. With aspirations to return to the UK live arena in 2014, Cole certainly has the perfect album to showcase her growth as an artist and as one of the finest singer-songwriters in the industry.