Monday, 1 September 2008

Top 100 Albums - #20: Harbinger (1994)

American singer-songwriter Paula Cole kicks off the Top 20 with her debut album, Harbinger.
Paula Cole was born in Rockport, Massachusetts in 1968, to a visual artist and an entomologist. Both her parents were musical, encouraging her to sing and make her own music from a very young age. She was educated at the local Elementary School, before moving on to the Berklee College of Music in Boston aged 18 to study Jazz Singing and Improvisation. During her time there she became a leading light in the College's gospel choir. After graduating in 1989, Cole relocated to New York and spent the next four years trying to get recognised as a poet and musician. She was brought onto the world stage when Peter Gabriel invited her to perform on his Secret World tour in 1993, singing the vocals handled on record by the likes of Kate Bush and Sinead O'Connor. Her performance went down a storm and brought her to the attention of Imago Records.

Things don't start well. 'Happy Home' feels tired and cloyed from the outset. The warbles coming from the guitar have a cheap, lacklustre feel to them, and the track does very little justice to Cole's incredible voice. She makes matters worse with a set of lyrics that are decidedly second-rate - she jumps from the breathy We tried so hard to build a happy home so the utterly cliched Home sweet freedom. It's far from the worst track in the world, but it's hardly a convincing way to kick off a singing career.

'I Am So Ordinary' does that job a whole lot better. The guitar here is much brighter, the production is more intriguing, and Cole is allowed to open up a little more in what feels like a very close subject. The lyrics depict a woman feeling inadequate after her man starts seeing someone else, who just happens to be perfect in every way. Where a lot of songwriters will force their overly clever musings on you, Cole is content to conjure up little marvels that we only pick up on second or third time around - She is your Queen Cleopatra/ And I'm just your morning after being a prime example.

'Saturn Girl' sees the introduction of strings into the mix, a move which will prove beneficial as we go on. This is more poppy in sound, with a more catchy and fragmented chorus. But the song is still tinged with sadness, not enough to make you weep but more than enough to make your heart sink. Cole's delivery is bitter, like she is singing the scars that life has given her. In her higher registers, she is stricken and fearful, and lower down her anger comes to the surface for all to see. But despite this very personal approach to music, her introspection never becomes overwhelming. On the contrary, it makes you want to know her more.

This stricken mood continues on 'Watch The Woman's Hands'. One critic compared this to Kate Bush's later work, and there is something to that.¹ This is kookier than before, but there are none of the sacharine pop touches that characterised Bush's work on The Red Shoes (1993). Cole is still earthy, still downtrodden, and still angry. The rhythms created at the start, by a combination of bass and breathy beat-boxing, don't just work as a pulse. As the song rises, it serves to heighten the claustrophobia of her predicament, until you only have the yearning chorus as a means of escape.

'Bethlehem', on the other hand, provides no such escape route. At the start you will be lulled into a false sense of security with the slow tempo and lilting guitar. But lyrically this is Cole at her most vitriolic and bizarre. You may well find lines like I wanna be a dog/ Or I wanna to be a leaf rather off-putting, but the verses are starkly (and darkly) honest:

Everybody's talking 'bout Becky's bust
The boys on the basketball team just fuck
The same ten girls, who don't know who they are
They're looking for some comfort in the back of a car
The six packs of beer, the locker room jeers
I don't wanna be me, I don't wanna be here

On subsequent albums, from This Fire (1996) onwards, such sentiments would be diluted and sanitised by the poppier sounds on offer. But here, all you have is a brutally true glimpse into one unhappy childhood.

'Chiaroscuro' is a little brigher, with Cole showing her artier side. Sure enough, the lyrics reference goodness knows how many painters, none of which add much to this story of inter-racial love. But there is still enough on offer to tittillate you. This is one of the few songs to successfully combine rock singing and beat-boxing, of the kind that we saw earlier. Cole's voice is on true form, cresting the higher notes without becoming just a wailing blanket of noise like so many singers do. And the backing band excel themselves throughout, from the violins and cellos at the start to the echoey snare on the choruses.

Having gone all orchestral on us, the next track invites us to take a breath and refocus. To that end, 'Black Boots' is just Paula on her own with a piano. Where before her voice was treble-y and wailing, he she sings right down and her delivery takes on a smoky quality. The chords she drives out would fit in well at a 1920s club; and sure enough, this sounds both spooky and avant-garde. 'Oh John', however, is a case of too much information. The song chronicles the protagonist's coast to coast sexual exploits in the United States. While there's nothing particularly disgusting about the subject matter, or the way in which Cole says it, the thin nature of the subject means that this song quickly runs out of steam.

Fear not, though, because now the album really gets into its stride. 'Our Revenge' features one of the most original and captivating verse structures since the 1960s. The strings set the tone with some brooding minor chords, and then Cole steps up to the mic and delivers a fabulous performance. The lines run into seemlessly into one other, each ending with a long, haunting note from the gut which both chills you and excites you. In the choruses, the strings and Cole's angry vocals are balanced beautifully by the flamenco-esque acoustic guitar. This is not the catchiest song ever, but it's so wondefully put together and original that you find yourself deeply drawn to it.

'Dear Gertrude' is just as fabulous. More bizarre, more unhinged and more ethereal than 'Our Revenge', the first time you hear this you may be tempted to turn off. But slowly, the female vocals become warm, the lyrics worm their way into your subconscious and it all begins to make sense. The object of this song is unclear - 'Gertrude' begins as a spiritual essence of some kind, maybe an angel, but in the last verse, when Cole murmurs You're so lonely in my body, she could easily be her unborn child. Either way, this song is a deeply sensual experience. It will lift your spirits in ways you cannot really comprehend, and you will love it more each time you listen.

'Hitler's Brothers' is probably the strangest track on the album. Like on 'Our Revenge', we get an unusual set of lyrics, only this time the chorus grows by one or two lines each time. The precise reason for this is unclear - suffice to say that this is captivating enough for it not to be an incentive to listen to the end. The verses, meanwhile, are another look at racism, albeit more extreme than that in 'Chiaroscuro'. They describe death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, police corruption and the treatment of Chinese as second-class citizens. And if that wasn't enough, we get a parody of Hitler's Nuremberg address in the middle. Light, breezy stuff.

'She Can't Feel Anything Anymore' could casually be described as one of the greatest little-known wonders of modern music. But that label does not really justify just how special this is. Like 'Black Boots' this is stripped back, until it is just Cole with a mourning violin and a bass. The lyrics are incredibly harrowing; they describe an incident of domestic violence (or possibly even rape), but paint both victim and assailant as troubled, ordinary human beings so that you don't know who is in more pain. The lone violin between the verses slips out of the languid background and hums a bittersweet series of notes like the instrument itself is weeping. The closing words will chill you deeply:

He tried painfully,
He begged for her forgiveness on his knees
She give gracefully, but inside
But inside,
She still bleeds.

Cole gives a performance of an operatic nature, which blows everything else out of the water. You will listen to this track sparingly, because it is just so powerful, but there can be no doubt as to how remarkable an achievement it is.

The final two tracks are both poor relations of this, although 'Garden Of Eden' remains very good. Cole's spiritual side comes back to the surface as she grapples with the Genesis myth, again providing us with a soaring performance on vocals. This doesn't have as much substance as a lot of the tracks, but there is still the odd charming lyric which leaches out to save the track. The chorus in particular becomes more charming as we go along. 'The Ladder', meanwhile, is a less confident number on which to finish. The chorus is good on this one as well, but on the verses the kooky backing vocals quickly become annoying. What's more, there is not enough of a proper melody to back this up, and so in the final third Cole resorts to some 1980s drums and throaty straining to keep us interested.

If singer-songwriters have gained a reputation for being anodyne and banal, Harbinger is a lingering reminder that the genre can still cough up blood and guts from time to time. It's not an easy record to listen to, whether in one go or in bits. And that's because at its core, this is a deeply personal record, a document of one woman struggling in the modern world, brought about in many weird and tantalising ways. It is a catalogue of calamity, the pouring out of one's heart in situations which inflict pain, anguish and suffering to breaking point. It pulls no punches and makes no excuses for its more oblique moments. This will not flatter you with easy metaphors; it will shock you and scare you, and in doing so make you feel good to be alive. Subsquent Cole efforts were more well-presented and together, and as a result more successful. But for raw quality and sheer heartache, this is definitely the place to be.

4.00 out of 5

¹ Kelvin Hayes, 'Harbinger', Accessed on October 2 2008.

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