When Cher entered a London studio to record "(This Is) A Song for the Lonely" last summer, she had no idea that the tune would resonate as intensely as it does during these days of political unrest.

When Cher entered a London studio to record "(This Is) A Song for the Lonely" last summer, she had no idea that the tune would resonate as intensely as it does during these days of political unrest.

"At the time, we still lived in a world of innocence, and all I knew was that this was perhaps one of the best songs I've ever had the opportunity to sing," she says of the guitar-laden, dance-pop anthem. "Since the world has changed so dramatically, the lyrics have a different weight. They're heavier, yet they're comforting at the same time. Over the past month or so, I've had a number of people tell me that the song has helped them cope. What a humbling compliment."

"(This Is) A Song for the Lonely," which was written by Paul Barry, Steve Torch, and Mark Taylor, is the single that previews "Living Proof" (due March 5 via Warner Bros.), the pop icon's follow-up to 1998's global chart-buster, "Believe." The album reunites her with the U.K.-rooted production team of Taylor and Brian Rawlings, who helmed the single "Believe" and much of the ensuing album.

The new disc also offers collaborations with Rick Nowles (Madonna, Celine Dion), British musician/producer Chicane, and Norwegian team Stargate. With its kinetic dance leanings, "Living Proof" is a collection that shows Cher at her career zenith as a singer -- but don't ask her to assess the quality of her performance. She's not terribly fond of the sound of her own voice.

"It drives me crazy," she says with a laugh. "I think you have to be a bit of a narcissist to hear yourself and think, 'Oh, that's fabulous.' Ultimately, I appreciate what I have to offer as a singer. But when I listen to my own voice, I usually hear the flaws first and foremost."

That said, even the self-critical artist agrees that "Living Proof" -- and "(This Is) A Song for the Lonely" in particular -- shows her in top form. "When I first started to sing that song, I felt like I was taking off on a rocket ship. It just soars. Just when you don't think it can reach any higher -- either musically or emotionally -- it goes a little further."

Cher dedicated "(This Is) A Song for the Lonely" to "the courageous people of New York" following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Sept. 11. The dedication has contributed to early radio and retail interest in both the song and the project.

And the timing of the single with the current political climate is likely to strike a responsive chord with the music-buying public. "That goes without saying," says James Lonten, manager of a Borders Books & Music in New York, which has been stocking "Living Proof" since its Nov. 19, 2001 European release. "We play the track in-store, and it literally stops people dead in their tracks. It's an instantly affecting, highly emotional song. We've been doing decent sales for the album on import, which is a good sign. People seem to be very interested in this record, if only to hear if it's as good as 'Believe'."

The U.S. version of "Living Proof" will include a track not featured on the European pressing of the album. "It doesn't really matter, though," Lonten says. "With or without the additional song, this project is going to be a smash."

After spending the past two months trekking through Europe to promote "Living Proof," Cher opens 2002 in the U.S., doing a busy round of TV and print press. Her first shot of visibility is scheduled to come via the American Music Awards Wednesday (Jan. 9), where she is slated to perform "(This Is) A Song for the Lonely."

The artist's TV profile will be enhanced by a video for the single directed by rising production team Orphanage. The clip is an epic, high-tech affair that pays homage to New York, spanning 75 years of the city's history.

"It's an extraordinary piece of work," Warner Bros. president Jeff Ayeroff notes. "We couldn't just do a simple video. After all, we're dealing with an Academy Award-winning actress. It had to be extra-special."

Beyond television, Cher says she's contemplating a concert tour -- though she's not likely to sign on for the kind of year-plus jaunt that accompanied "Believe."

"It honestly depends on whether or not I decide to do a couple of movies that I'm considering," she says. "It would be fun to do these new songs live, so we'll see what develops."

Though Cher didn't set out to follow a lyrical theme, she agrees that "Living Proof" wound up becoming a recording with a notably positive lyrical tone. Besides the uplifting single, the album features a heartfelt rendition of club diva Amber's hit "Love One Another," as well as the decidedly optimistic, single-worthy jams "A Different Kind of Love Song" and "Real Love."

"We just chose songs that felt right on an individual basis," she says. "It wasn't until we started to assess the entire album and play with sequencing that we realized that this had subconsciously become an album filled with love and warmth. It was a pleasant surprise, and it's certainly an appropriate time to put some positive energy out into the world."

"Living Proof" also sees the artist continuing to experiment with the studio technology that made "Believe" an innovative, trend-setting recording. The disco-laced "Music's No Good Without You," which has already scored with pop listeners and club punters as a European single, is drenched in hypnotic synth lines and computer-savvy vocal effects, while "Love So High" craftily blends futuristic keyboards with earthy acoustic guitars.

"I love the idea of combining technology with organic, traditional instruments," she says. "When we did that on 'Believe,' we had no idea of the response it would get. I loved the fact that our little studio experiment became so influential. I love even more the fact that we could take that idea to an even higher level on this record."

Cher admits that she happily marvels at the fact that she's still actively enjoying hits after nearly 30 years of making records.

"It's an artist's dream to have a career where you're continually drawing new people in, while hopefully keeping your longtime fans happy," she says. "But I'm certainly aware of the fact that it's a rare occurrence. I don't take for granted the fact that people still care about what I do on any level."

Part of what has kept Cher relevant has been her willingness to continually explore new musical ground. After several years of cutting rock-etched records, she shifted gears in 1998 with the club-spiced "Believe." The title cut not only scored with the public; it became the biggest hit of her career.

"I knew it was a special record when we finished it," she recalls. "But you don't predict something so huge. It was crazy."

Issued in late 1998, "Believe" holds the record for the biggest-selling song in England by a female in the history of recorded music. The next single to be lifted from the album, "Strong Enough," entered the U.K. charts at No. 5 in March l999, and in the same month, "Believe" completed its long climb to the top of The Billboard Hot l00.

Cher's next musical venture, "Not.com.mercial," was only made available through her Web site (Cher.com). The project was a dark, often startling effort that the artist describes as a chance to express herself as she's never done before.

"That album is reflective of a period of time that was highly emotional and highly creative for me," she says, adding that the collection was not intended to make a major statement. "Those songs are what they are. Period. They're not meant to be labored over."

Perhaps that's Cher's true secret to longevity. While other artists micro-manage and plot out their every move, Cher simply performs what she feels in the moment and then moves on.

"I don't do a lot of planning. It's often just a matter of following the path of least resistance," she says. "I love making records, and I love making music. I just follow the flow of what's working and what feels right in the moment. I'm often surprised by the results."