Tori’s first four albums are beloved touchstones for many people. The music provides a firm foundation for her career by establishing that, for Tori, there are no rules when it comes to the way she approaches composition. These albums showcase Tori’s ability to create her own mythology in visionary ways each time out.
Boys for Pele (1996)
In terms of narrative, composition and sheer scope as a record, Boys for Pele is one of the most unique pop records to come out of the 1990s. Make no mistake: despite its twisty narrative, mysteriously confrontational lyrics and non-traditional take on song structure, Pele was a considerable mainstream success, selling more than 2 million copies worldwide and going platinum in the United States. Part harrowing journey into darkness and fury, part coming to terms with the aftermath of a shattered psyche,
Boys for Pele—with its salacious (and witty) image of Tori suckling a piglet with her shirt open, and creepy-crawly, jarring harpsichord stomps grouped with haunted, simply-tended balladry—might actually seem to the casual listener to be the anti-pop record. Ironically, Tori’s biggest-selling single off the record (in fact, her biggest-selling single of all time), was a positively slutty club mix of the Southern Gothic tale of madness and revenge “Professional Widow” that focuses on the lyric “it’s gotta be big.” Those who came into this disorienting, often sinister world expecting a four on the floor rave were instead greeted by a smoky, deeply-complex rumination on one woman’s singular version of The Blues; the kind only experienced by Tennessee Williams’ broken blossoms, Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone and Lavinia Mannon, and even some of the the Bible’s most furious women: Mary Magdalene, Jezebel, Salome.
The first half of the disc finds Tori in a fugue descending into a hallucinatory Ayahuasca-fueled abyss of anger, despair and confusion; the cathartic kind that evokes the wrenching neurotic pain of a genteel Blanche Dubois’ psyche cracking in A Streetcar Named Desire. Though it’s roots are quite distinctly rooted in the deeply soulful, deeply-odd South that might have been written about by Flannery O’Connor or filmed by D.W. Griffith, there are elements to the story that evoke the frankly sexual, perverse moments of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s sordid and hot-blooded underworld, which is reflected in the choices made for the album’s artwork: Tori appears as a stalwart guardian of ghostly, forgotten children much like Lillian Gish does in the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, one of Fassbinder’s key influences as a filmmaker.
In that film, Gish sits rocking on a porch, cradling a shotgun and dueting a hymn with a deranged preacher after rescuing two orphans he has been tracking with hopes to murder them, just as he did their mother. The Night of the Hunters producer Paul Gregory would refer to Gish and her character in the film as a “Dear Little Iron Butterfly”, an apt description for the Tori of this era. Tori plays many roles on Pele, trafficking in archetypes and extremes: violent protector, a disarticulated Lady Macbeth figure (“Professional Widow”), and wounded lover (“Hey Jupiter”). Ultimately, and epically, she explodes like prophetess of hellfire hurling through the night, blazing through the black sky like a comet or a demon goddess ascending to heaven, completely out of her mind (“Blood Roses”, “Father Lucifer”). And then she rises again to see the morning star on the record’s closer, “Twinkle”, at the end of this long day’s journey into night.
You’d be hard-pressed to ghettoize the record by trying to categorize it with a musical genre. With it’s many shape-shifting plays on stylistic convention—the stark rawness of “Beauty Queen/Horses” Leslie cabinet effect, the effervescent use of rippling electronic flourishes on “Caught a Lite Sneeze”—perhaps it would be most fitting and accurate to group Boys for Pele in a category with some of the region’s great literature from Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor (Streetcar and Wise Blood come to mind), as well as Fassbinder’s universe and The Night of the Hunter, using the term “Anti-Christ Melodrama”.
All of these works are both branded with the red-hot iron of righteous Christianity and haunted by the foul-smelling sulfuric specter of the Devil himself. It is that unholy and unsettling bilocation and brilliant intertextuality that marks a true literary work of genius, artistic masterwork or any consummate objet d’art, all of which are applicable lenses through which to view an intimate, intricate, and positively harrowing work such as Boys for Pele. Categorization is futile, but the ways in which Pele can be read are staggering. Matt Mazur
Key Track: “Professional Widow”
Take a Closer Look: “Little Amsterdam”
Watch: “Doughnut Song”
from the choirgirl hotel (1998)
Inspired by grievous loss, infused variously with the confusion, the guilt and the joy of survival, from the choirgirl hotel comes out swinging. The record, of course, represents a significant turning point in Tori Amos’s career. For one, it’s the first album recorded at Amos’s home studio in Cornwall, and also the first with percussionist Matt Chamberlain on board, a collaboration that has nourished her live and recorded music ever since. Chamberlain recently told PopMatters how he sees the record now:
“I think it’s really adventurous and really holding up over time. A lot of it, at least in my head, was really pushing the envelope. It still feels like it is contemporary, it doesn’t feel dated. There’s definitely great songwriting. The songs hold up without the production. She plays them now live solo and they still sound great. But the production was very adventurous, especially because she was willing to step out of ‘piano player/singer’ mode and get into electronics and basically just throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.”
Amos challenged herself to use rhythm in a different way across choirgirl, broadening her aesthetic to encompass modern technology and recording with a live band rather than adding other instruments subsequently. “The piano was excited,” Amos confirmed. “She didn’t have to masturbate for the first time in a long time.” Listeners were excited, too. The opposite of a sterile dance record, for all its state-of-the-art technological sheen, choirgirl proved itself to be a soulful, emotional work that confronted issues of sorrow and survival in a compelling, spiritual way. Throughout, however, the bleakness of some of its songs’ subject matter is offset by funky rhythms and riffs and by alluring melodies that keep the listener off balance but also welcome them in.
The album’s luscious, mature, confident and erotic sound is both staggeringly diverse and remarkably cohesive, with sublime transitions. (“I would change my clothes to be able to sing the songs on this album,” Amos told Jon Pareles at the time.) The orgasmic clamor of “Raspberry Swirl” (a Sapphic spin on Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up” that cemented Amos’s unexpected transformation into dance-floor diva) gives way to the moving (and funny) ballad “Jackie’s Strength,” which develops from an intimate childhood memory into a sweeping panorama of 1960s American political and popular culture. The despair of the tribal-techno “iieee” morphs into the soothing, scatty, jazzy groove of “Liquid Diamonds”, while the aching “Northern Lad” segues into the squelchy synthesizer turbulence of the dynamic “Hotel”.
A magnificent album in which all the elements—lyrics, vocals, musicianship and artwork—feel immaculately aligned, from the choirgirl hotel has only grown in stature as the years have passed. Put it on today. Turn it up. Check in. Alex Ramon
Key Track: “Spark”
Take a Closer Look: “Liquid Diamonds”
Watch: “Black Dove (January)”