True Colors, Cyndi Lauper’s second album, doesn’t sound much like her megaplatinum She’s So Unusual — and good for her. Lauper’s out-of-nowhere 1983 solo debut was an eminently listenable, often brave, frankly subversive work that stood pop convèntion on its fat, stuffy head. When Lauper sang the celebratory “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” or the dark, stark plaint “Time After Time,” she wore her individuality as both a badge of honor and a cross to bear. Much was written about her eccentric dress and appearance, and likewise, much mush was disseminated about her witty take on sex roles. But both appraisals of her appeal were too narrow. “I don’t fit in” is the true sentiment underlying every track on She’s So Unusual. When she sang, “I want to be the one to walk in the sun,” she sounded like someone who’d spent too much time in the darkness. Lauper wasn’t a corporate contrivance: she really was unusual.
But Lauper knows that her persona is no longer as startling or novel as it once was. She couldn’t very well title her long-awaited follow-up Hey, I’m Still Unusual! without its coming off as tired shtick. Like Madonna, a kindred artist whose similarly titled current album invites inevitable (though not inappropriate) comparisons, Lauper had to fine-tune the wacky elements of her presentation or be perceived as a limited performer, a rock & roll version of Leonard Nimoy.
So this time out, Lauper and coproducer Lennie Petze have turned to her voice, an asset as strong, idiosyncratic and instantly recognizable as her image. She’s So Unusual was a producer’s record, and as such, its mix emphasized the band’s clean, delicate arrangements; True Colors is a singer’s record, with Lauper’s studied voice way out in front. Many rock singers are only as good as the songs they sing, but Lauper’s singing can elevate ordinary material. On the new album’s midtempo “Boy Blue,” Lauper rescues hackneyed lines like “stolen your innocence but … not your soul” with one shot of her controlled vocal fireworks. Another showcase is the ominous-sounding, remix-ready “Change of Heart,” complete with a spat-out guitar solo by Nile Rodgers (this album is chock-full of celebrity cameos). Lauper’s trademark hiccuped syllables rest on a cushion of harmonies supplied by the Bangles and transform what is little more than a sophisticated rhythm track with nominal lyrics into a heartfelt declaration of fidelity.
Another song that serves as an adequate vehicle for Lauper’s supple shout is “Maybe He’ll Know,” the only track that features a “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” organ-synth line. She lets loose with airy melismas as Billy Joel lends background harmonies; though this is a remake of a tune Lauper did with her old band, Blue Angel, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Joel’s own retro An Innocent Man. Her surprisingly rough singing and a few well-arranged harmonies are all “Calm Inside the Storm” has to offer, unless the recent spate of hits featuring the bass line of the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” has made you anxious to hear it again.
Lauper co-wrote or added “additional lyrics” to all but three tracks, and though her voice is still miles ahead of her pen, there are several songs on which her material is worthy of her vocal interpretation. On Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg’s title tune, Lauper and Petze turn down the volume and come up with an intimate, devotional sigh of a song that has some of the emotional complexity of “Money Changes Everything”; whispering, speaking, singing, Lauper sounds like a more open Rickie Lee Jones on the wistful chorus. On a lighter note, the willfully childlike “911” is dumb fun, throwaway dance rock with an assist by unlikely guest Pee-Wee Herman. Somewhere between those emotional poles is “The Faraway Nearby,” a bouncy collaboration with ex-Brain and “Money Changes Everything” writer Tom Gray. The number is a near duet with ’til Tuesday’s Aimee Mann, who accentuates the resignation of the lyrics without diving into self-pity.
The album’s biggest shock — and the track that bodes best for Lauper’s future — is her ambitious, gutsy take on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” The song begins with battle sounds re-created by a digital sampler, and then Lauper’s uneasy quake of a voice emerges from a swirl of synthesizer. As the song proceeds, Lauper stops being shaped by it and starts shaping it, sending out sure scats and playing call and response with her overdubbed background voice. Neil Jason’s massaging bass supports her as she takes control and turns the song into both an elegy for Gaye and a respectful reminder that the fifteen-year-old song is still all too relevant. As Lauper finally states her case, “What’s Going On” segues into the giddily nonsensical New Orleans R&B classic “Iko Iko” — and the horrible and the celebratory become one.
Except for her singing in the introduction to “What’s Going On,” Lauper sounds more comfortable at any given moment on True Colors than she did on all of She’s So Unusual. The naturalness of the star cameos on True Colors seems to indicate her extreme ease in her new surroundings, and judging from her music, she’s found a new sense of peace — or at least she’s heading in that direction. But her uneasiness gave her early work much of its spark; what places True Colors a notch below her debut is that Cyndi Lauper just isn’t that unusual anymore.