Paula Cole’s amen — excuse me: Paula Cole Band’s Amen — is pretty unbearable, and for reasons that have only partly to do with her decision to let Dawson’s Creek use her 1998 hit ”I Don’t Want to Wait” as its opening theme. A pretty wisp of a tune, ”I Don’t…” became annoyingly overexposed, as would any song that was replayed every week and in countless commericials for a TV show. Hell, even a perfect pop song like — oh, I don’t know, Aretha Franklin’s ”Chain of Fools,” for example — would become excruciating if you had to hear it week in and week out as the theme to, say, Norm.
But the irritation one feels listening to Amen, Cole’s third album, has more 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 cliches 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. (Later on the album, Cole presumes to tell us what ”God Is Watching,” reducing the higher power to a kind of Santa Claus looking down from heaven at who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. (Suggestion to Cole: In keeping with Amen’s spirit of magnanimity, shouldn’t you be giving Rodney King a cut of the royalties for your hijacking of the phrase ”Can we all just get along”?)
There is no song on Amen as elegantly crafted and quietly unassuming as This Fire‘s ”Carmen,” to use just one example. Instead, we are treated to awkward rapping — abetted by an indulgent DJ Premier, from Gang Starr — about ”the critics and the cynics who don’t understand the lyrics.” Oh, if only that were so, Paula! It’s the spareness of arrangements designed to emphasize the words and the instrumental minimalism — the plaintive guitar chords on ”Free,” the stark rhythm-section drone of ”Suwannee Jo” — that can make cliches like ”Nothing more important than following your soul” turn even the most generous listener into a critic who is at least skeptical, if not cynical.
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.