Because Less Is Still More
Something specific and kinda tragic sometimes happens to extraordinarily talented people. The details may vary, but the basic scenario goes something like this: Talented Person does something really brilliant, like maybe release a stark and haunting angelic debut album called Little Earthquakes. A bunch of people notice. That same talented person follows it up with a slightly more layered, still really creepy and gorgeous Under the Pink, putting that whole “sophomore slump” cliche to rest and creating an entire sub-genre, “songs about masturbating to the Bible”. More people notice. Said supernaturally talented artist next releases Boys for Pele, and firmly solidifies fan base that is something like a cross between religious pilgrims and redheaded kool-aid drinking cult members. Everybody notices.
Talented person surrounds herself with nothing but supportive and adoring people (because she can), and in the process, starts to lose perspective. All the music magazines write that her talent is remarkable, which it is, and that she can do no wrong, which she can. She believes them. Our hero artist becomes almost unbearably self-gratifying and indulgent, and no one she works with has the nerve or ability to reign her in. Several unsteady and inconsistent albums follow, mixing moments of unmistakable genius with over-produced and confusing experiments that sound flat and contrived. Insert obligatory “covers” album here. Despite a kind of prodigious skill rarely seen in an age of computerized creativity and silicone talent, said artist is reduced to hiding her famous piano work behind silly drum kits and eventually stoops to the most heinous of all Crimes Against Musical Humanity: writes and records a song about her first-born child. It’s a sad, sad story.
Such is the situation in which Tori Amos fans find themselves upon the release of Amos’ ninth album, the self-produced The Beekeeper. Emphasis on the “self-produced” part. For all of her musical genius—and it is considerable—Amos has always lacked a certain amount of self-restraint. And with 19 songs on its roster, The Beekeeper suffers from too much of the glossy stuff that floats on top, and too little foundation on which to keep itself grounded. While Amos herself would certainly love the image of her songs floating along the ceilings like so many of her famously-worshipped fairies, this fantastical image looks unfortunately better than it sounds.
Perhaps the single biggest problem with The Beekeeper is that there’s just no edge to be found in any of these tracks. Fans of Amos are familiar with her trademark lyrical tactics, zinging bullets with the kind of deadly accuracy that kills you before you even know you were hit, but doing it all with a whisper and a crooked smile. That paradox is tragically missing from The Beekeeper, which just plain sounds too nice. It’s not like I want the woman to suffer for her art. But without some kind of aesthetic antagonist, there’s very little tension and way too much vocal masturbation going on. Many of the songs suffer from a lack of form that isn’t so much “rock ‘n’ roll” as it is a display of an unnecessary if characteristic undisciplined studio philosophy. This is why Amos so desperately needs to work with an outside producer.
But look, I’m not saying that Amos is hopeless, or that The Beekeeper is irredeemable. She’s not, and it’s not either. “Toast” manages to be delicate and tender without being sappy. “Parasol” is a stick-in-your-head opening track that breathes an introduction that is more promising than the album lives up to, but still gorgeous in its own right. And “General Joy”, while over-produced, allows more of an organic Tori Amos to peek through, the result of which is one of the strongest and most challenging tracks on The Beekeeper. But the song that absolutely rips off its own hinges is “Original Sinsuality”, a track that would have been right at home on Little Earthquakes. It stirs and confronts in that gentle and dangerous way that has become Amos’ hallmark, and it’s positively creepy.
It’s just that out of 19 tracks, there should be more than this to talk about. And for every “Parasol”, there is a “Sleeps With Butterflies”, a song that sounds dangerously close to “A Standard”. Yes, I mean that in the Rod Stewart sense of the word. I swear, I wouldn’t be overly surprised to hear Jessica Simpson cover it on her next TV special with hubby Nick. If that isn’t enough, we have “Hoochie Woman”, which, while having one of the most promising titles in all of recorded music, nonetheless sounds like a fucked-up cross between the Charlie Brown theme song and Pete Shelley’s “Homosapien”. And then there’s “Ireland”, which literally starts with the line “Drivin’ in my Saab…” Let’s just face the facts: there is nothing less cool or interesting or artistic than driving a saab, let alone writing a song about it!
Listening to The Beekeeper, it’s easy to get the sense that these songs could have been so much more if only they were, quite simply, so much less. If Amos had skipped the fancy-shmancy production tricks and stuck to what she does best—interact and interface with her beloved piano—she could have created some truly mesmerizing songs. Instead, lyrically brilliant numbers like “Sweet the Sting” get buried alive under such heavy distraction that its own formidable complication ends up sounding like so much background music. As it stands, The Beekeeper sounds like a collection of outtakes from a much better album. And there are few things more bittersweet than reflecting on what could have been.