Nearly 10 years ago, Cyndi Lauper broke new ground as a zestful, zany pop diva with her hit-packed debut, She’s So Unusual. Now, with her fourth — and most ambitious — album, Hat Full of Stars, a more serious Lauper has returned with a fresh sound that mixes ’60s soul, ’70s funk, ’80s pop and ’90s hip-hop, as well as bits of folk and ethnic music. And her multioctave voice has never sounded better, hitting highs, lows and everything in between.
Sonically, Hat Full of Stars has a richness that results from its imaginative combination of rootsy instrumentation (dobro, accordion) and R&B staples (organ, saxophone), underpinned by dance-music mainstays (drum machines, keyboards, samples). Lauper’s expressive voice meets the challenges of the various songs — from throaty belting (“That’s What I Think”) to sassy testifying (“Like I Used To”) to plaintive crooning (“Who Let in the Rain”).
Lauper joins forces on Hat with former writing partners Eric Bazilian and Ron Hyman (of the Hooters), as well as song doctor Allee Willis, co-producer Junior Vasquez, Tom Gray (who wrote Lauper’s ’85 single “Money Changes Everything”) and singer/songwriters Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Nicky Holland. Except for the maudlin “Rain” and the exuberant, Celtic-tinged “Feels Like Christmas,” Lauper has left behind affairs of the heart. Instead, she offers personal insights into such subjects as racism (“A Part Hate”), illegal abortion (“Sally’s Pigeons”), incest (“Lies”) and wife battering (“Broken Glass”) — it’s heavy-duty, but not heavy-handed. The album’s pensive title track depicts Lauper herself as an older-but-wiser survivor: “I’m trying to live in the present/But I keep tripping on the past/Finding out reality, well, clarity/Comes in dribs and drabs.” On Hat Full of Stars, the past and present, reality and clarity all come in equal — and powerful — doses.