Tori Amos Returns, Unrepentant
Without Tori Amos, pop music wouldn’t be what it is today. Will she finally get the recognition she deserves?
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle
“There are some who say I’m now too old to play,” Tori Amos sings on “16 Shades of Blue,” a track off her new album, Unrepentant Geraldines. It’s an odd worry, coming as it does from an artist who sounds reinvigorated, refreshingly on top of her game, and primed to regain the central place in contemporary pop that is hers by right.
Amos is 50 years old; Unrepentant Geraldines is her 14th studio album. And “16 Shades” is probably the closest thing it has to a mission statement. It knits together Amos’ promised themes of painting (“Visual artists shake up our brains and force us to look at everything,” she told Rolling Stone in February) and private life, detailing what were presumably Amos’ own fears of turning 50, becoming irrelevant and seeing her career end (“are you telling me it’s over, disintegrating, lost, and there’s nothing I can do?”) and her rejection of various attempts to cheer her up or calm her down (“You say get over it, if 50 is the new black, hooray … but my cables they are surging, almost over-overloading, as you disengage”) with the sort of unvarnished honesty most people can only use in their most private moments. Amos has said that she wrote this album in secret, stealing moments for herself between more collaborative projects, including her 2013 musical The Light Princess, and “16 Shades of Blue” certainly sounds like the kind of thing you’d write if you didn’t anticipate an audience: It’s fiercely interior, sometimes unflatteringly bitter and startlingly direct.
And yet, there’s so much else to notice about the song: the skittering drum line, for example, and the way the fuzzy, old-fashioned synth bass pulses under the melody at unexpected intervals. The way little sounds keep floating in and out—a weird “laser gun” noise, pizzicato strings, a muted crash that sounds like an iceberg fragmenting into the ocean—and the way the song’s odd, elusive rhythm works to make us, too, feel disoriented in time. All these odd touches work to make the track feel fascinatingly alien, its down-to-earth lyrics contrasting sharply with its interplanetary idea of music. And then, there’s the way that Amos’ self-pity spirals out, becoming something stronger and more generous, as it surges to embrace other women: “See, over there, at 33, she fears she’ll lose her job because they hear the ticking of her clock,” she sings, going further back in time, picking up more and younger girls who feel too old, realizing that her personal is in fact political, her anxiety a symptom of a sexist society.
All of this—the merging of therapy-session intimacy with righteous feminist polemic, the forthright confrontation of uncomfortable subjects, the odd song structures and sonic curveballs—is vintage Tori Amos. And it’s deeply comforting, given that Amos is coming off of what was arguably a late-career slump. It only comprised five years and three or four so-so albums—the toothless “funk” of 2005’s The Beekeeper, the trying-too-hard glam-rock of 2007’s American Doll Posse, and 2009’s scattered, uneven Abnormally Attracted to Sin; there was also a holiday album, which was minor by design—and it was bookended by two very strong efforts, 2002’s American-history-as-diary concept album Scarlet’s Walk and 2011’s neoclassical “song cycle” Night of Hunters. But for those of us who were spoiled throughout the 1990s by getting a flawless and soon-to-be-iconic Amos album every two years, it was a long, anxious wait for her to find her footing again.
It was also a wait for Amos to regain a central place in our idea of contemporary music—something she richly deserves. She certainly wasn’t the only female performer in the early 90s to embrace personal lyrics or feminist politics. Riot Grrrl was happening in the Pacific Northwest at around the same time that Amos was writing and releasing her first singles from Little Earthquakes; Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville came out a year later, in 1993; in England, there was the primal, gender-bending blues-rock of PJ Harvey. But Amos was undeniably distinctive: In an age where guitar distortion was king, she toured with a grand piano. Her classical training and encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary music (she’d paid her way through her teens and twenties playing covers in piano bars, and worked as a professional songwriter and session musician) made her influences hard to place: You might hear bits of Tchaikovsky or old show tunes jostling for dominance with Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell and who knows what else. (Many critics, when faced with the task of making comparisons for an artist this all-over-the-map, just threw “Kate Bush” at the problem and called it a day. There are certainly strong similarities—their voices are strikingly alike in some registers, and they're both good with a keyboard—but Bush, like the later Beatles records or Robert Plant or any other primary influence in Amos' writing, got woven back into an aesthetic that was pretty uniquely her own.) Her music blended delicate prettiness with visceral impact: Little Earthquake’s “Silent All These Years,” for example, reeled you in with a twinkling, fragile ballad that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Disney movie, then turned on you in the second act with a story about abortion.
She was massively popular, and has continued to be so: Abnormally Attracted to Sin was a Top 10 album on the Billboard 200 chart, and so were Posse and Beekeeper. For all that I might complain about Amos being under-appreciated, we’re talking about an artist for whom debuting at #9, rather than #5 or #1, constitutes a “decline” in popularity. (And she’s been consistently debuting in the top 5 of Billboard’s “Top Internet Albums” chart roughly since it was created.) But the record industry’s initial efforts to capitalize on the alt-singer-songwriter niche she’d created mostly resulted in wispy, wimpy, disposable acts: Your Jewels, your Joan Osbornes, your Vanessa Carltons. Of that first wave of post-Amos signings, only Fiona Apple managed to match Amos in both vulnerability and power. And, perhaps because of Amos’ perceived connection to those acts, the indie world of the time—with its undying commitment to lo-fi guitar rock—spurned her. You were about as likely to see Pavement praising Tori Amos as you were to see them attending a Star Trek convention, and for roughly the same reasons.
But in the mid-2000’s, something shifted—the keyboards came back in, the pop/rock divide got smaller, “ethereal” was no longer a dirty word—and you began to hear echoes of Amos everywhere. Many indie darlings are traceable to Amos: It’s impossible to listen to Regina Spektor or Bat for Lashes without hearing substantial chunks of Amos’ distinctive voice. St. Vincent’s electro-orchestral-rock and operatic vocals bear her imprint. And Grimes’ “Oblivion”—a hit single about the singer’s own sexual assault—is unimaginable without Amos having broken that ground with 1991’s “Me and a Gun.” But you also saw plenty of her in mainstream pop hits: Lady Gaga, in particular, has bitten Amos’ act often enough that she probably owes her royalties, with all the piano fires, bench-straddling, sacrilegious Christian imagery and club-thumping numbers about coded bisexuality that you'd expect from Amos circa 1996 – 1998. Amos was releasing lackluster albums at precisely the moment that everyone seemed interested in emulating her great ones, and that combination made her invisible just as she should have been ascending to the throne.
If any album is going to restore Amos to the center of the conversation, Unrepentant Geraldines is it. It’s the right moment, and the right idea: her first album of entirely original solo work in five years. There’s a lot riding on the question of whether these 14 tracks are any good.
And they are. They're not flawless—there are missteps and oversteps along the way. Amos’ strength lies in her untamed Romanticism, her ability to spin epic dramas and Bronte-worthy passion plays out of the mundane business of living. When trained toward dark matter, this can make her immensely powerful: “Wild Way,” a ballad of toxic codependency, finds Amos mourning another person’s power over her psyche, crooning “there was a time you didn’t always get your way / back then when my heart was not so easy to invade… I hate you, I hate you, I do” with quiet, devastating sorrow. She hates him; she hates that she needs him; she hates that she hates him. It’s simple, it’s awful and it’s real.
But when Amos is aimed toward happier subjects, that same larger-than-life passion can turn into sentimentality: “Wedding Day,” off Geraldines, combines a vaguely Elizabethan rhythm with syrupy lyrics about how “angels were born” when the narrator got hitched. Amos is the sort of writer who can use phrases like “love of my life” and “safe in your arms” un-ironically, and your ability to deal with that will depend largely on your own levels of irony. Similarly, her earnestness can make “playful” a risky move, and “dorky” a very real possibility. “Giant’s Rolling Pin” is a catchy but somewhat too-cute music-hall number about pies and the FBI—look, Kanye rhymed “god” and “croissant,” so I don’t want to hear any complaints—and “Maids of Elfen-Mere” is a Celtic air about honest-to-goodness elves and mystic faerie kingdoms that is probably providing the soundtrack to someone’s Magic: The Gathering tournament as we speak.
Still, the very nature of the project—reportedly recorded bit-by-bit, in between other work, with Amos and her husband Mark Hawley playing pretty much every instrument in Hawley's Cornwall studio—has forced Amos to go back to basics. And Amos’ “basic” is enduringly beautiful. She’s still far and away the best pianist in pop music, and here, she’s left alone with her instrument for four out of 14 tracks. Throughout her career, Amos has often sounded her best within extremely simple arrangements. Not only were her lyrics unusually intimate, the records often sounded like you were actually alone in the room with her. Here, songs like “Weatherman” and “Oysters” glide by on otherworldly harmonies and Amos’ elastic soprano, private enough that you can hear every note and echo. And while Hawley’s level of involvement was cause for some concern—he’s been playing guitar on her albums as “Mac Aladdin” since 2002, and can be a profoundly intrusive presence on her more sensitive tracks—here, he’s eased into a supporting role. He provides atmosphere when necessary (and does so wonderfully on the dark twang of “Trouble’s Lament”) and enables Amos to play around with odd arrangements and structures, but backs off when she can carry things on her own.
Time will tell whether Unrepentant Geraldines is the album that gives Amos an undisputed place in the canon, or in the public’s esteem. No one predicted the Great Fiona Apple Revival of 2012, after all, and no matter how hard Amos partisans push for her, the people want what they want. What’s important, in the end, is not mass appeal, or even mass plaudits. The important thing is that—despite her openly stated fears of irrelevance, of being “too old”—Tori Amos has never been more relevant than she is right now. And, with Unrepentant Geraldines, she’s provided us with an album that demonstrates why she’s had such a massive impact for all these years.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.