Paula Cole's pop music break through, This Fire, turns 20 this year. Released in 1996, the album is most remembered for its two hits, "I Don't Want to Wait" and "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone." Those two tunes still sound great--full of pathos, rich melody, and 90s Lilith Fair nostalgia. However, what makes This Fire such an interesting record all of these years later is that it's lesser known tracks are tuneful gems too. Here are my two favorites, though you could honestly write a mini-essay on each of the album's 11 tracks.
I have always appreciated that "Carmen" is gender neutral. As a gay teenager, hetero-normative lyrics frustrated me. Why did every song have to be sung from a woman to a man, or vice versa? "Carmen" transcends that issue, because it avoids gender-defined pronouns and sexual-orientation-specific lyrics. Yet, the song feels detailed and personal--not an easy feet while attempting to be universal. "Carmen" is one of the softer moments on an album filled with frustration, and its sweetness (including Cole's performance) provides comfort and balance on This Fire.
More than any other Paula Cole tune, "Me" is the most empowering. It is a song about self-analysis and motivation, but rather than push for an explosive "Firework"-style chorus as is the fashion these days, "Me" turns inward. The song reaches a crest during the bridge, when Cole belts, "I'm scared as hell, but I know there's something better." It was released in the hey-dey of 90s alt-pop confessionalism, and it always surprises me that this song was not a bigger hit. Regardless, it's a tune for anyone having a dark night of the soul.