By Ken Tucker
Updated October 04, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

The irritation one feels listening to ”Amen,” Paula Cole’s third album, has much to do with what the success of her previous collection, 1996’s ”This Fire,” has done to her. Its 2-million-plus hit status — along with the pervasive airplay and debate-stirring sexual politics of its breakthrough single ”Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” — seems to have thrown Cole back on herself.

Even as she’s making a group name shift to Paula Cole Band, to acknowledge the contributions of guitarist Kevin Barry and drummer Jay Bellerose, she seems convinced that it’s the Paula Cole Philosophy that people want to hear. ”This Fire” brought to mass attention the strong, surging voice of a woman who wrote, played, and produced songs of unremitting introspection that were nonetheless universal enough to invite identification and sympathy in the listener. ”Amen” offers, as its title hints, Paula Cole as preacher.

I don’t mind when, on ”Pearl,” Cole belabors the couplet ”Baggage from my family/Going back to therapy,” because these confessional-genre clichés are transcended by the song’s swirling, happily distracting melody. Similarly, the album’s first single, ”I Believe in Love,” is powered by a sweeping disco beat reminiscent of a solid Gamble-and-Huff Philadelphia International production, and Cole puts an ache in her voice that sells the ballad even as it gets your hips twitching. The song is also the most specific — and most successful — example of Cole’s noticeable increase in working R&B and hip-hop musical locutions into her music.

But most of the time, the melodies serve the lyrics rather than the other way around, and Cole shouldn’t invite close inspection of either her wordplay or her messages. The title tune is an egregious example of the ”list” song, in which the singer enumerates the people she deems worthy of redemption, or at the very least a hearty ”Amen.”

These range from the comparatively blameless (Elvis Presley, Gloria Steinem, and, fer Pete’s sake, Mahatma Gandhi) to the questionable (O.J. Simpson, Saddam Hussein), all names set to a monotonously metronomic beat that only underscores the self-righteousness of this exercise in forgiveness that’s less Christian than queenly.

There’s no denying the richness of Cole’s singing, and I’ll never tune out the catchy ”I Believe in Love” if it pops up on the radio. But, hokey, tricked-up, and empty in a way her previous release rarely was, the follow-up to ”This Fire” might more accurately have been titled ”This Smoke and These Mirrors.” D+