Cyndi Lauper, Comeback Kid

CYNDI LAUPER has grown up. Once in danger of becoming the ’80s answer to Betty Boop, New York’s multi-platinum sweetheart has returned from the wilderness with an album guaranteed to surprise. More than a comeback, “Hat Full of Stars” (Epic) is easily her best effort, a smart, passionate work that adds a new toughness to the charming pop sparkle of old.

Lauper’s escape from the purgatory of nostalgia revives a career that’s barely flickered over the last few years. The 1988 movie “Vibes” bombed, while her 1989 album, “A Night to Remember,” fell way short – artistically and commercially – of its two smash predecessors. Since then, she’s been practically invisible, apart from news of her 1991 marriage.

In the liner notes, Lauper says “Hat Full of Stars” is her story. If so, she’s been though hell: a sharp contrast to the giddy optimism of her younger days. The woman who chanted “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” almost 10 years ago now tackles such sobering matters as domestic violence and mental cruelty without a flinch. Writing with a host of collaborators, including old pals Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian of the Hooters and country star Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Lauper sounds like someone who’s learned bitter truths the hard way.

The funky uptown bounce of “Broken Glass” can’t soften her tale of abuse by a brutal lover, while the melancholy title track simmers with angry regret over a failed relationship. In less sensitive hands, the delicate “Sally’s Pigeons” might be cheap melodrama, but Lauper brings a touching, unadorned sincerity to this account of a friend’s death from an illegal abortion.

So much naked anguish would be hard to stomach if Lauper weren’t still an irresistible performer who sings her heart out, however bleak the situation. Producing or co-producing every track, Lauper displays an unerring instinct for catchy touches, from the gritty grooves of “Dear John” to the breezy “Like I Used To,” which combines a rousing declaration of independence (“Won’t take your crap”) with echoes of the Temptations’ “Beauty Is Only Skin Deep.” Only the corny “Who Let in the Rain” fizzles – although it would probably suit Whitney Houston just fine.

She may never recapture her dizzying chart success of the mid-’80s, but Cyndi Lauper’s got more important things to worry about now. Whether “Hat Full of Stars” sells 5,000 or 5 million copies, she oughta be proud.

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