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Paula Cole’s Journey to “Ithaca” Brings Her Home September 22nd, 2010

What has always distinguished Cole from other artists -- besides pipes that can literally leap octaves -- is the inseparable bond between her heart and her music. The closest comparison I can find is one of my own heroes, John Lennon, who wrote confessionals straight from the soul, with no filter, much as Cole does on “Ithaca.”

Or Springsteen from his “Darkness…” days.

“I might mess up because some of these we’ve never played before,” Cole told the City Winery audience. “Herbie Hancock says you should be in the zone. And that’s where you’re gonna make mistakes. And that’s OK.” 

Like anyone minded -- or even noticed. Just because perfection doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean Cole -- still ravishing at 42 -- won’t pursue excellence every time she performs one of those raw, to-the-bone songs of hers, stripped down to just her soaring soprano and gentle piano, accompanied by guitar and drums. 

She herself acknowledged, in her own way, that the beauty of her work is in the contrasts -- soft shakes of the maracas giving way to a rising wail, light piano flourishes building to monumental cries of liberation. “Without the darkness, there is  no light,” she said. 

And without a divorce that put her into a creative closet, she wouldn’t have produced the ready-for-widespread-play of “Music in Me,” “Something I’ve Got to Say," and the magnificent (yes) “Come On Inside," from only her fifth studio album. 

The split sent her back to Rockport, Mass., the hometown she ran from, not looking back, years ago. That’s what made it so easy for Cole to spice her riveting new songs with nods to a past that treated her more than somewhat well for a relatively unknown backup singer “discovered” by Peter Gabriel.

With closure comes freedom -- and, in Cole’s case, an album that gathers not only some of her best songwriting ever but also her at-times awesome ability to deliver it. Getting personal, as she’ll often do, she sang lyrics unabashedly aimed at her ex: “Thank you for the laughter. Thank you for the tears. Thank you for my daughter….”

She followed that with the heartbreaking “Happy Home,” a tune from years past that Cole said opened a rift between her and her mom that eventually was healed, allowing her to sing it again: “Sacrified her dreams to motherhood / Waiting and waiting to be fully understood / Sacrificed her years to family / Waiting and waiting to be heard finally.”

Cole’s daughter, Sky, was with her grandmother Tuesday night as her mom plied her trade, belting with a Joplinesque passion (and I’m not talking about Scott), cradling other songs gently, and bopping around the stage like a single mom listening at home to a hot new CD.

Tomorrow night, Cole truly goes home to play Boston’s Berklee College of Music. For all the beauty of the City Winery performance, that will be a night as emotional as the evening‘s encore performance of “Me,“ which left Cole -- and many in the audience -- wiping away tears. After all, she’ll be living the dream of “Ithaca,” named  for the island that Odysseus finally came home to after a decade of fighting to get there. 

“I’m so blessed to have music,” Cole told the crowd, easing back from behind the piano to the front of the stage again, as the show built to a powerful close. She then unleashed a song that’s as powerful as any she’s ever written, “Comin’ Down,” from her 2007 album, “Courage.” It was “a cry for help from the subconscious,” she explained. “I was looking at the sheet of paper with the lyrics before I realized that I needed to get it out.” 

Then, from a place few ever visit within themselves, she sang: “Lord I’m mistaken in the choices I make / I made me a prison that should’ve been a man.“ The lyrics bent her so far forward that Cole’s raven tresses nearly brushed those sitting up front, as she pulled out the pain and presented it as spoils of victory.

Yes, she performed “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” Seven Grammy nominations for 1996’s “This Fire” pretty much make both songs mandatory, in a sense. But for the first time since they helped unleash her extraordinary gifts on popular culture, Paula Cole has other songs as worthy, if not more so, of attention. For the first time, those sweet songs from nearly 15 years gone are jukebox trinkets that, in contrast, throw light on the powerful new material.

Before she left the City Winery stage with a soulful version of “Jolene,” Cole promised it won’t take another year for her to return. It’s a bet worth taking. 

That’s because Paula Cole is no longer standing at another precipice in life. 

At last, she has become the pearl.