The Record
10:39 am
Tue May 13, 2014

Why Tori Amos Connects

Originally published on Mon May 19, 2014 4:40 pm

When I spent time on tour with Tori Amos a decade ago, collaborating with her on a book, I'd see her invoke the four elements many nights before her band would take the stage. This was a focusing ritual, taken up to remind everyone that the process of making music is, metaphorically, part solid, skillful Earth; part responsive, adaptive Water; part imaginative Air; and part passionate Fire. Amos thinks in such deep structural terms, always considering how her compositions and performances come together from the underlying layers outward.

Amos fans, like myself, also understand her music in elemental terms. The deep themes and governing qualities of her music have emerged and shifted within her fourteen studio albums and many other projects; now, on the return to form Unrepentant Geraldines, they present themselves brightly and clearly in songs that that are both personal and emblematic, timelessly Tori and utterly appropriate for this midlife point in her career. We've gathered together a group of unabashed Amos appreciators to explicate the elements of Tori. Each has contributed to the annals of Amos: Alex Macpherson wrote about From The Choirgirl Hotel in the Guardian, In These Times staff writer Sady Doyle just published an essay on Geraldines, T. Cole Rachel interviewed her for V magazine and Katie Presley interviewed her for Bitch. Here, we've each described one quality that has made her work special since Little Earthquakes hit in 1992. Then we've offered one primal force or feeling that lends depth to her remarkable new album, Unrepentant Geraldines.


TORI BACK THEN

Here's a startling fact: Tori Amos's first single in advance of Little Earthquakes was "Silent All These Years," backed with "Me and a Gun." On one side, a viscerally disturbing account of sexual assault; on the other, a string-laden piano ballad in which the narrator updates you on her menstruation. That was the first impression Tori Amos ever sought to make. Right away, it was clear: This woman had GUTS. She's taken huge risks: Singles aiming for the ever-trendy "techno harpsichord" aesthetic? Building her reputation on solo piano performance, then knocking that down to tour with a huge, loud band? Nine-minute song that's just a list of plants, 18-track album about American history, dramatic readings of Eminem? You can find all this in Amos' catalog, along with attacks on homophobia, sexism and Christian fundamentalism. Unlike, say, Lady Gaga, you never get the sense that Amos' politics or "shocking" choices are part of a cynical marketing strategy. It's just the sound of a woman who is absolutely assured of what she has to say, and how she wants to say it. Which, given the world we live in, is the most courageous thing of all. --Sady Doyle

Tori Amos elicits strong reactions from people. As a rule, most people either really love her or really hate her and rarely is there any gray area between. Those who dislike Tori seem to do so not so much because of her music (if they even know her music), but because of what she seems to represent. Tori Amos is a kind of piano-humping mystical feminist fairy creature writ large, and after two decades in the music business, the image of scarlet-haired Tori at the piano is now something akin to mythical. This is, of course, what people also LOVE about Tori Amos and what makes her such an easy target for slavish devotion. This idea of Tori Amos is all fine and good, but it's a shame that it often overshadows the real genius of her work: her songwriting. Few artists of our generation have approached the complexities of life with the same kind of humane GENEROSITY as Tori Amos. Whether she's writing about sex or death or abuse or, you know, some kind of arcane mythology you might never understand, Tori commits. She approaches both the most deadly serious subject matter ("Me and a Gun") and the most frazzlingly conceptual (remember "Frog on my Toe"? Remember all those wiggy Strange Little Girls album covers?) with the same degree of thoughtful seriousness. Fourteen records deep into her wonderful — albeit sometimes confounding — career, there are few emotional stones that she has yet to pick up, examine and toss into her piano. --T. Cole Rachel

Tori Amos's catalog, for me, has always been about how safe I feel listening to it. Her albums function equally well as works of art and as practical field guides, sending GPS data every few years from new coordinates in the thicket of self-actualization that she and her listeners have been navigating together for two decades. Tori is our flame-haired, first-name-basis, mezzo-soprano GUIDANCE counselor. "When you gonna love you as much as I do?" she asked as a 28-year-old, ten minutes into her first album. She arrived beckoning toward self-discovery and love. Little Earthquakes was a debut, but there is nothing half-baked or under-developed about it. She sailed to shore on a seashell, fully-formed, and offered a vision of identity that demanded acceptance. Her music was strange, her voice was strange, and her message was clear: "There is room for what I'm doing in the world, even if I'm the only one doing it." We heard that, we pupils, and took it to mean that there's room for what we're all doing in the world. Her unflinching career has paved the way for innumerous other unflinching, glorious marchers to their own beat. --Katie Presley

Because her work can be confessional and her musical and lyrical vocabularies are quirky, it's possible to overlook how much Tori Amos engages with others in her songs. COMPASSION is the quality that separates her from many women in music who've used their own biographies as a starting point. Amos goes beyond the confessional, even when she's clearly speaking from unique experience. Her narratives blend elements from the lives of her own family members and friends, historical figures, fans and her own fantasy characters to show that any confession only resonates because we can relate to it. Amos's empathetic imagination is balanced by strong ethics; when she uses others' stories, they shine their own lights, rather than being subsumed within her world view. The comfort inherent in Amos's voice tenders her messages. We can receive even her rage because there's always love behind it. And then there's the kind touch she offers while playing the piano — rarely does an instrumentalist so insistently present herself in relationship to her instrument, not dominating, but listening and responsive. Amos has only been mother to her daughter Tash for half her career, but if as the cliché goes, mothering is walking around with your heart outside your body, she's been doing it all her working life. --Ann Powers

At her best, Tori Amos's command of raw CATHARSIS was unparalleled. It's what made her music a force of nature that transcended the confessional singer-songwriter genre — indeed, it was her mode of confession, more so than the elliptical poetry of her actual words. On paper, Amos would approach straightforward narratives, only to veer into a world of private references and beguiling nonsense wordplay, as if reflecting the difficulty of piecing together a confessional statement in the first place. But the emotion was always in her performance — in the purrs, whoops and shrieks of her voice that imbued lyrics such as "they're watching my every sound" or "a hot kachina who wants into mine" with instinctive meaning. During her famously intense live shows, Amos would often seem a woman possessed, a conduit for the feeling in songs that she's consistently referred to as entities separate from herself. On record, that same dramatic impression was manifest in the rich, often baffling complexity of unparsable lyrics and brilliant, experimental arrangements for which Amos has never really received the credit she deserves — not just her revolutionary approach to the piano but the ambition of her late '90s electronic excursions. Amos's catharsis was fully involving, sometimes draining to experience — but at its core was a sense of the limitless, and that's what made it addictive. --Alex Macpherson


ON UNREPENTANT GERALDINES

It is not always easy to be a Tori Amos fan. In todays' cultural landscape, confessing to Tori fandom is a bit like admitting you attend Ren Faires or having a pack of Magic: The Gathering cards accidentally fall out of your bag at a party. It reveals that you are part of a dedicated and oft-maligned fanbase that, depending on your present company, might be deemed very uncool. For those of us who have stuck by her, silent all these years, Unrepentant Geraldines is the record we've been dying for Tori Amos to make. Across 14 single-worthy tracks, Amos conjures the kind of chamber pop and epic piano balladry that make her such a force to be reckoned with. The record's general MUSICALITY — the ease with which she shifts gears from winsome to ferocious, the way in which Amos' still excellent voice plays counterpoint to the melody in the songs, her purring sense of humor — shows Amos at her most dynamic, making for something that plays almost like a greatest hits record. And while it wouldn't be Tori Amos without a little kookiness (the lovely "Selkie" is a love song about mythological shape-shifting seal creatures), the "girls" on Geraldines are some of the most relatable Amos has unleashed in years. Songs like "Trouble's Lament" — in which Amos sings, "If Danger wants to find me, I'll let him, he can find me" — have the same kind of bite that made Under the Pink and Boys for Pele such commanding listens. Tori Amos still loves you. She isn't fucking around. --T. Cole Rachel

More than 20 years after Little Earthquakes, Amos's guidance has been disseminated and focused. It's still Tori singing strength to Tori, and Tori singing strength to the women whose stories she's telling, and to the wider listening public, but there is another, more specific life she is now shepherding: Her daughter's. Strange Little Girls was for Natashya, about re-imagining the rock canon so that a girl might grow up and feel a part of it. Night of Hunters featured Tash as the supporting character Annabelle in several songs. And Unrepentant Geraldines showcases her as a musical peer; as fully half of the conversation, from her own point of view. Good guidance, particularly of the MATERNAL variety, is subtle enough that it's not immediately apparent when one has graduated to guiding oneself, and Natashya's development from inspiration to concept to self-fulfilling musician is the precedent and promise of Tori's earlier albums made manifest. Every Tori Amos record is about breaking free of the stories we're told and telling our own, but Unrepentant Geraldines is the first with physical proof of the journey. --Katie Presley

Unrepentant Geraldines is her best album in a decade — but oddly, not for many of the reasons that Tori Amos Mk I was such a formidable artist. It's not so much a return to form as a belated discovery of a new artistic mode. It's long been clear that Amos has got all that catharsis out of her system; what she's struggled with has been finding another driving force. Unrepentant Geraldines doesn't inspire fear and trembling. Instead, it's charming, touching, occasionally wise; its appeal is on an altogether smaller, simpler scale than Amos has ever aimed for. But by narrowing her scope, she's rediscovered the kind of LIGHT, CASUAL TOUCH that's eluded her laboured, effortful work post-2002. Both lyrically and vocally, Amos is direct like never before: "I hate you, I hate you I do," she sings on "Wild Way." Her declaration of "I'm gonna heal myself from your religion" on the title track is calm but forceful, no longer the source of pain to be excised. Her delivery is clear as a bell, pretty and tender where once she was visceral. But for the first time since then, Amos is making music that flows naturally and easily. --Alex Macpherson

"16 Shades of Blue," off Unrepentant Geraldines, contains Amos' most direct lyrics about gender and age. She sings about her fear of turning 50, a thirty-something panicking about "the ticking of her clock," and a girl of whom "at only 15 — I said 15! — they say her future's bleak, she should have started this at three." But the first thing to notice about "16 Shades" is that IT SOUNDS REALLY STRANGE. Is that a kazoo? Video game noises? An actual ticking clock? Amos' best risks have always been musical, not just lyrical, and Unrepentant Geraldines is wonderfully adventurous: "Rose Dover" rockets giddily from music-box chimes to Goth soundscapes to musical theater. "America" drops a mid-Beatles bridge into a folk-rock song. Even the solo piano pieces ("Weatherman," "Oysters") float by on odd chords and unpredictable vocal twists, like music heard in dreams, or pop songs from another dimension. Amos never sounds quite like anyone else — which is why her albums age so well; try listening to Garbage's second album, a hilarious compilation of forgotten trends, next to From the Choirgirl Hotel from the same year — and on Unrepentant, she's sounding like the most inventive version of herself. --Sady Doyle

There are many ways to define HUMOR, but one way it surfaces is as compassion directed at the self. That kind of elemental loving smile shows up all over Unrepentant Geraldines. Amos has talked extensively about this album as her way of coming to terms with reaching 50, a milestone that's made easier by a comical temperament, simply to deal with the indignities of one's worn-down body and time-fettered life. Always up for a cabaret-style number like this album's "Giant's Rolling Pin," Amos is also skilled at tempering even the most serious declaration with the breath of a laugh — she is, after all, the woman who put a reference to a talking horse in the middle of her groundbreaking song about rape. Humor lightens the tone of Unrepentant Geraldines without diluting its intensity. The Spaghetti Western stride of "Trouble's Lament" and the alternately intimate and trivial mother-daughter exchange on "Promise" are two full-song examples, but humor's flourishes also mark moments in the meditative "Oysters" ("not every girl is a pearl") and the epic, heretical "Unrepentant Geraldines," which imagines a vicar's wife as a runaway riot grrrl. The looseness and joyful life of this album reflect a soul who's not letting any healing jokes go unappreciated. --Ann Powers

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