All Joy Wants Eternity
96 · 28 November 96
Paula Cole: This Fire
There is, no matter how many articles get written about it, no such genre as "Women in Rock". There was once, probably, but circa 1996, at least in the English-speaking world, the kinds of music made mostly by men are vastly outnumbered by the ones the genders share. There are women in punk, folk, Brit-pop, power-pop, synth-pop, rock, noise, dance, a cappella, country, disco, hip-hop, jazz, bluegrass, classical and world musics, at least, in enough numbers that picking examples is no harder than, and no more liable to produce duplication than, thinking of men in those genres. For all this integration, however, a few forms do retain stubborn sexual homogeneity. Women still hate Rush, and unless your standards for "heavy" are lax enough to admit Lita Ford or Vixen, the whole heavy-metal/progressive-rock axis remains a predominantly male arena. I've never been sure if the style's hormonal signature is inextricably sex-linked, or if bussing schemes are just taking longer to implement there than in other areas, but the one thing that makes me suspect the former is that at the other end of the spectrum from metal, where delicacy and empathy replace power and bombast, and where the seminal records are The Kick Inside and The Speckless Sky, not Paranoid and Master of Puppets, there's a complementary style that is as resolutely female as metal is male. It is atmospheric, precise, intricate, vulnerable, intense, beautiful music. It is more musical than folk, more refined than rock, more oblique than pop. It can be starkly acoustic, or lushly electronic (or, for that matter, starkly electronic or lushly acoustic). It can be unshakably calm, or deliriously frantic, but is rarely drab and almost never sloppy. It inspires fanatically attentive cult followings, but rarely ends up as skateboard decals. It's also mostly sung by women.
No matter what you call this style, Kate Bush is its patron saint. Though any genre accumulates ancestors as it develops, there is a difference between influence and origin, and Kate is the artist whose place in the pantheon somebody else would have had to take if she had not existed. The Kick Inside proved that it is possible to express feminine sexuality in music without male prurience being the goal or the result; The Dreaming established the idea that women can lock themselves in a studio for months on end and come out with something frighteningly incomprehensible to most of the world just as well as men can; and Kate's whole canon demonstrates that the spectrum of "popular" music does accommodate varieties that appeal to the highest common denominator, not the lowest. But for all that the form owes, artistically, to Kate and to Tori Amos, her modern apostle, their work doesn't constitute a genre. It is often said that everybody who saw the Sex Pistols play said to themselves, excitedly, "Hey, I can do that", and went home and started a band, but you don't say "Hey, I can do that" after hearing Kate or Tori. At least, not if you're not Jane Siberry or Happy Rhodes.
The existence of a larger genre I credit, instead, to Peter Gabriel, Melissa Etheridge and Sarah McLachlan. The perennial male exception to the form's female monopoly (and so the Lita Ford of whatever we call this), Gabriel was one of the first male stars to strip out of his music almost all traces of machismo and rock's usual intrinsic drunken bluntness. For rock fans apprehensive about swimming the river to a land of women's music, Gabriel was a solid, reassuring bridge attached to the familiar shore. Melissa Etheridge, on the other hand, is not in the genre (I've taken to referring to her as the female Bryan Adams), but her prominent presence in the rock mainstream does two things: it establishes that women can make conventional rock, which precludes anybody from arguing that Tori's quirkiness is the inevitable result of mixing estrogen with instruments, and it spans the gap between MTV and VH1, eliminating the idea that "adult" and "alternative" are mutually exclusive labels. It was Touch and Solace, though, Sarah McLachlan's first two albums, that for me first raised the possibility that one could make Kate's kind of music without having to have been born with Kate's unearthly genius. They are good albums, both of them, but the most encouraging thing about them is that they are not great. It is clear from them that Sarah is talented, but it is just as clear that her talent is the result of practice and discipline, not a sort of demonic possession, and listening to "Vox" and "Steaming" and "Into the Fire" it is at least possible to contemplate making music yourself that could be played alongside it. And if Touch and Solace established that principle, then Fumbling Towards Ecstasy, where Sarah's control of her own art begins to resemble Kate's, is even more promising, as it suggests that mastery, too, can be acquired, rather than genetic.
Of all the musicians who owe debts to Peter, Melissa and Sarah, few can trace their lineage from all three as directly as Paula Cole. She was the featured backing vocalist on Peter's Secret World tour and live album. She opened for Sarah on a stretch of the Odyssean Fumbling Towards Ecstasy tour. And Melissa brought her along to join Jewel, Joan Osborne and Sophie B. Hawkins on Melissa's round-robin VH1 Duets special. The commercial potential of this exposure was somewhat undermined, however, by the ignominious implosion of Imago, which found itself without a distributor at what, for Paula (and Aimee Mann), was a particularly inopportune juncture. Harbinger, Paula's disarming debut album, went out of print for a time, and it was "reissued" with more apology than fanfare. It's available again now, though, and so anybody interested in This Fire can go back and approach it properly, which involves spending time with Harbinger first.
I feel this way both for musical reasons and textual ones. I bought Harbinger based solely on the fact that Paula's name was on the Sarah McLachlan concert ticket I'd just purchased, and initially it reminded me strongly of Tasmin Archer's Great Expectations (and not just because the discs share a cover-art aesthetic). I liked, and still like, Great Expectations, but it strikes me as an essentially light album. The curve of my crush on Harbinger, though, refused to trace the expected arc. The blast of new and shininess ought to have faded away, leaving me to move on to something else. Like there are some good foods that drive the thought of eating anything else out of your head (pesto tortellini and extremely dense donuts are among my personal weaknesses, though preferably not in the same meal), and some you're better off consuming in moderation (I find Double Whoppers With Cheese to be astonishingly delicious, as long as I go at least a year between Burger King visits), so too there are some good albums that are best if you lock yourself in a room with them for a month, and some that are better if you play them a few times and then put them somewhere where you can find them once or twice a year. Great Expectations is one of the later type, to me, but it quickly became clear that Harbinger was of the former. The music has an appealing, if superficial, studio proficiency to it ("Happy Home"'s cheery fingersnaps and sparkling ambience could have just come from a gig in Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer", "Saturn Girl" has "Sleeping Satellite" written all over it, "Bethlehem"'s marriage of cheesy drum kit and angelic harmony vocals has some of the same feel as Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket", and "Oh John" could almost be an Eddi Reader song), but under the microscope of repetition I began to fixate on the details that showed Paula's own personality more plainly than the competency of her players: the quick, scratchy breathing and bare hand claps in "Watch the Woman's Hands", the vocal percussion on "Chiaroscuro", the deliberate odd-key piano phrases in "Black Boots", the spasmodic strings on "Our Revenge", the strange sound effects that permeate "Hitler's Brothers", the eerie register-shifts in "Garden of Eden" and the breathtaking multi-tracked choir of "The Ladder". And, winding through every song on the album, I came to feel, a sense of emotional urgency in Paula's voice that defied any thought the music might have had, on its own, of retreating behind blandness or gloss.
Things quickly got even more interesting when I started paying attention to the words. Harbinger is a very bleak record. "Happy Home" is about discovering that your mother has spent twenty years being somebody other than who she intended. "I Am So Ordinary" is a wrenching anthem of fragile self-image, "Bethlehem" is a harrowing portrait of small-town claustrophobia and wretched yearning for escape, "Black Boots" seems so overcome with the metaphorical significance of the singer's shoes that its attempts to explain it are strangled in shyness, and "She Can't Feel Anything Anymore" seems only able to revisit its emotions by switching to third person. "Hitler's Brothers" and "Our Revenge" merely hint at the surface of a deep reservoir of social vitriol. The album ends, however, on a hopeful note, as the lyrics of "The Ladder" find a tiny vein of optimism to go along with the song's music. "I am climbing a ladder of urgency, / Climbing a ladder of hope, / Climbing a ladder of my emotions, / Climbing a ladder of unraveling rope." And though the rope part doesn't bode so well, the determination in Paula's voice is such that I am not convinced that she won't, in the end, climb fast enough. This album is not, as Lisa Germano's Geek the Girl is for me, or Big Star's Third, a chronicle of unraveling. If Lisa and Alex sing songs from freefall, Paula's are from after the crash, songs of triage, songs of what must happen before healing can begin.
And this is why I want so fervently for you to learn Harbinger before you go on to This Fire. Please, I don't care if you don't buy either album, but if you get this one without the first, you will miss what I'm feeling right now, and if there's any point at all to my writing record reviews, it's because feelings like these are too precious not to try to share. Reading my explanation of "Bethlehem" is enough for you to recognize the significance of "Tiger"'s opening proclamation, "I've left Bethlehem, / I feel free. / I've left the girl I was supposed to be", but it's not enough for you to feel it. I can tell you that the way she sings the line accompanied only by drums is a musical manifestation of self-reliance that mirrors the textual one, but that won't make hearing it take your breath away like it does mine. This Fire is the most redemptive, transforming album I've heard in a long, long time, but you can't properly experience redemption in isolation. You must have the pain that precedes it; unmotivated joy is not art, it's Hallmark.
If Harbinger and This Fire form one long piece, then, "Tiger", This Fire's opening track, is the turning point. The escape it announces is not the end of the story, only the twist that makes a story possible. "Someday I'll be born", it affirms. If Harbinger was a stocktaking of the abyss, "Tiger" is the narrator's head finally raised, so that her gaze can start looking for footholds that could lead out of here. Not that the climb won't be difficult, but a hard climb is always preferable to an easy fall.
This new confidence is immediately evident in "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?", which is like "I'm So Ordinary" put through an emotional inverter. Its proposed sacrifices are not plaintive offers born of humiliation, they are a litany of the things the narrator won't do for anybody less heroic than a Hollywood fable, and she ticks through them as if the torch is being put to a 1955 issue of Life one idealized page at a time. In the wordless "doot doot" harmony vocals and the falsetto "yippie-yie yippie-yay" coda, which I take as explicit vocal allusions to Sarah and Kate, respectively, I hear Paula's nod acknowledging that these are her true friends, not Henley or Alanis, and the whispered voice-and-drum-loop verses are a deliberate, if careful, flaunting of her new self-production reliance. "Throwing Stones"'s giant's-footsteps bass piano and sustained guitar chords could both be from Tori's "Precious Things", its insistent snare from either Tori's "Girl" or, if you'd rather variety, from Grace Pool's "Wedding in the Lawn", but the wailed chorus, which I first took for "Call me a pigeon-hater, and I'll call you a liar" ("an odd argument", I thought, "but she seems very adamant on the point"), is a refreshing unwillingness to either back down or back away from a relationship dilemma that Harbinger almost certainly would have found a way not to face.
Musical allusions are then put on hold for the mesmerizing "Carmen", on which a pair of voices duet delicately around muted kettle drums, a quiet metronome hi-hat and piano so subtle it almost sounds like Paula isn't playing it, she's just holding the right keys down so that the ambient vibrations of the drums in the room make the piano strings hum in chords. "Mississippi" is as expansive as "Carmen" is contained, ominous digeridu and mysterious animal calls bursting into a soaring chorus that swirls with cymbal crashes and guitars, juxtaposed against a breathless bridge Paula sings pressed up hard against the edge of her vocal range. "Nietzsche's Eyes", in a way perhaps Paula's "Silent All These Years", is the closest thing here to a return to Harbinger, a lone piano accompanying what starts out to be another story of relationship imbalance, but this time self-awareness wrenches her away from the pathos, Uillean pipes join the piano like the soundtrack of sudden understanding, and self-pity turns into a complicated simultaneous critique of the man, the relationship, the narrator and Nietzsche. If I had time, I'd've reread Also Sprach Zarathustra to figure out exactly what "Nietzsche's kite" is referring to (anybody out there procrastinating a German-philosophy dissertation?), but in a way it doesn't matter, because Zarathustra itself was sort of Nietzsche's kite, his attempt to emulate the birds he represents freed souls as throughout the book, a kite being both a creature that dances in the sky and something that is, like a soul, tethered to the earth, and draws its operator away from his earthly imprisonment, toward the sky's freedoms. The song's converse, though, is that a kite can't, usually, actually carry away its flier, and so in practical terms, a life of kite flying, yearning to be something that denies a part of your reality, may be a program for misery (which is the effect it seems to have had on Nietzsche, come to think of it). And so the narrator's attempts to stop looking at things with Nietzsche's eyes, seeing in everyone a Superman that could have been, and start seeing good in what is. Ironically, I think Nietzsche would be very pleased with the next song, "Road to Dead", a fierce and bizarrely oblique assault on Christianity that dismisses Christ's teaching on the grounds ("You walk the road to resurrection, and I walk the road to dead") that the son of God's philosophy has no relevance in a mortal context. If indeed my ill-advisedly precise interpretation has anything vaguely in common with what Paula intended, which it quite possibly doesn't.
We leave Nietzsche behind for "Me", which manages to make admissions of personal culpability into the assumption of personal responsibility, and so turns what could have been an introspective standoff into a glorious paean to hope and individual potential, piano splashing through the murmuring bass undercurrent like morning sunlight through half-closed blinds. Paula even gets so carried away with her optimism that for a moment her restraint cracks apart totally, and "feelin' love", a sultry cabaret groove, slinks out. She composes herself quickly, though, and the deceptively gentle lullaby "hush, hush, hush" is actually, if my wild surmises are identifying the right ocean, a song sung to a dying AIDS patient who contracted the disease in his first tentative step from denial into self-acceptance. This is also the song on which Peter Gabriel makes a supportive vocal cameo, but while her tour experience gives Paula the clout to get Gabriel to perform, it doesn't seem like she had the clout to get him to listen to the song thoroughly before recording his part, as the thirty seconds during which he sings sounds like it was dropped in, whole, from some song of his that shares only a rough melodic similarity to Paula's.
And then, all too soon, only eleven songs and fifty-one minutes into a feeling of profound possibility and renewal that I don't want to relinquish after days or months or years, never mind a single hour, the album is over. If this is the end to which Harbinger's opening track, "Happy Home", was the beginning, then we began with a song about having waited much too long, and it is fitting that we end with one that exclaims, joyfully, that you will never get any more ready for your new life, and so there's no reason to delay it. Paula sends us back into our own lives, to do the good work she's inspired, with the ringing "I Don't Want to Wait", like marching music for returning to a home you only really see after fighting the war to defend it, or exit music for a concert that ends at dawn, so that we walk out, rhythmic skips in our step, into a rain-washed morning alive with the chirps of birds and delivery trucks, circling us on mysterious errands, and head off towards breakfast (dense donuts, mmm...). Not only is it possible to climb a ladder of hope, it seems, but it doesn't matter how quickly it unravels, because you can get off it any time you want. The goal is not to see how high you can climb, it's to find some place where you can stop climbing and be happy. The sooner you do, the more of your life's moments will be ones you relish, not ones you regret.
Which was kind of Zarathustra's point, too, after all.