Paula Cole, in interviews following the success of 1996 album "This Fire," has made no secret of her love for soul music. No surprise, then, that her third album, "Amen" (Imago/Warner Bros. 47490, arriving in stores today), opens with a song lush and funky enough to pass for an old Marvin Gaye number.
With a rich swirl of strings and woodwinds pushed along by percolating percussion and wah-wah guitar, "I Believe In Love" is a breathtaking production, evoking the best of retro-soul while still seeming contemporary. Even better, Cole's sultry, impassioned performance conveys all the emotional power of soul singing without altering her own distinctive delivery.
But there's more to Cole's sense of soul than the way she plays off R&B; mannerisms. "Amen" is a soul record in the religious sense, as well, finding Cole focused more on spiritual and ethereal matters than on the carnal concerns that dominate modern R&B.;
Being the subtle, thought-provoking songwriter she is, Cole's approach is neither simple nor conventional. Just as the album's title track avoids obvious gospel flourishes in favor of art-rock introspection and turntable-scratch rhythms, her lyrics answer the big questions -- why are we here? what does life mean? -- with a blissful, all-embracing "amen." It's not religious music in the traditional sense, but it's deeply spiritual and uplifting, nonetheless.
There's a similar sensibility to "Be Somebody," which prayerfully insists that we are all children of the divine, both the Mother and the Father (capitals hers). But this doesn't mean that Cole is a smiley-faced pushover. "Rhythm of Life" finds her lashing out at such miscreants as "the critics and cynics who don't understand the lyrics."
And as with her last album, even those who object to her views will have a hard time arguing with her music. From the moody, rap-inflected groove of "Rhythm of Life" to the slow, dusty thump of "Suwanne Joe," the album is so full of appealing, alluring sounds that "Amen" will have Cole fans shouting "hallelujah."
Paula Cole Band
'Amen' (Imago/Warner Bros. 47490)