There are fewer things more rewarding than an artist with a long career who, despite one or two smash hit singles, continue to make intellectually engaging and inspiring music, and Paula Cole’s latest album, Raven (out now on her own 675 Records), is one of those. This is Cole’s first truly independent release (funded by a very successful Kickstarter campaign), and what resulted is a collection of incredibly personal songs that allow her strong voice to shine, while showcasing her talent for writing artistic, layered pop music.
While Raven features a number of catchy guitar and piano riffs in a distinctive musical style developed throughout Cole’s long career, her carefully crafted lyrics and stirring melodies are what truly make the album such a compelling listen. Underlying messages of strength and perseverance emerge from sorrowful (at times painful) stories about love, heartbreak and personal strife. In “Eloise,” the first single from Raven, Cole embodies a jealous lover begging forgiveness for a relationship gone awry, and for killing a man Eloise had become intimate with. Above a twangy guitar and layers of backup vocals, Cole sings “Eloise, Eloise, forgive me please” in a soft falsetto that vividly expresses emotions of regret and despair.
Similarly, in “Manitoba,” one of Raven’s best tracks, Cole sings about a relationship nearing its end. Using a metaphor that, albeit somewhat cheesy, clearly conveys the frigid nature of the relationship, Cole uses her powerful voice to articulate her current anger toward her lover, singing “We’re as dead as doors, we’re as dead as ashes.” Several times during the song, all other instruments drop out, revealing Cole’s brilliant vocal range as she sings a high-pitched note that reminds the listener of what a singular talent she possesses. Unexpected and cool musical moments like this are common throughout Raven, helping to make it an overall thrilling listen.
Unfortunately, considered as a full-length effort Raven feels slightly disjointed at times, and has the potential to bore those less familiar with Cole’s music. Many of the songs have slower rhythms and, at first listen, can seem uninteresting for those not listening for Cole’s big voice and deep lyrics. Despite these pitfalls, Raven redeems itself through several incredibly strong runs of songs. “Eloise,” “Sorrow-On-The-Hudson” and “Manitoba” fit together perfectly, as Cole develops strength and resolve through feelings of betrayal and sorrow. Likewise, “Billy Joe,” and “Secretary” both feature gripping lyrics alongside a captivating musical melody and the booming voice Cole is acclaimed for. While “Billy Joe” builds its foundation around a folksy guitar and some Southern flair, “Secretary” sees Cole belting out lyrics in a role-reversing track that even casual listeners are sure to enjoy.
When compared alongside her complete repertoire, Raven will undoubtedly stand tall as one of Cole’s top albums. Cole clearly takes advantage of the freedom gained by writing an independent record, allowing her greatest talents to shine brightly while building a collection musically textured songs very close to her own heart. In a pop world so often dominated by bubblegum lyrics and overproduced vocals, Cole’s Raven stands as a substantive work that is indisputably real and full of intimacy and meaning.