Where's Neil When You Need Him?
Tori Amos saved my life. It’s as simple as that. I seem to be getting past the stage where I feel the need to burden every third person I encounter with my tale of woe, but here’s the short version: three waves of depression, culminating in my exit from college midway past the first year. I was already a fan of Tori, but after that, she basically took over my life, and for a while was practically all I listened to. For over a year.
Tori, of course, seems to inspire this kind of devotion. In my mind, there’s no one else out there whose work is so intensely personal and emotional. I’ve always thought of Little Earthquakes as the closest thing you can get to pure emotion distilled onto a CD. Tori’s debut album (not counting the widely misunderstood Y Kant Tori Read release) shows her at her most intimate—indeed, many have likened Little Earthquakes to “Tori’s diary”, and while the album sometimes teeters on the edge of sounding too confessional, there is ample room for the listener to inject her or his emotions and experience.
Which brings us to the point, which is: why do we listen to music in the first place? And there will always be people who listen to achieve a sense of peace and healing. Not that listening to Tori is an easy ride, as she shifts from the achingly beautiful to the socked-in-the-gut, crying-your-eyes-out emotional meltdown. And while this can turn off a lot of listeners, there will always be people who come with that need. I’ve often joked that you aren’t allowed to listen to Tori unless you’ve had your life shattered in some way or other; a good friend of mine (and a Toriphile) puts it that you don’t get into Amos unless you have some kind of deep-seated emotional need.
But there is no shortage of singers out there who go for the emotional jugular, whose music is nowhere near as powerful. Part of the reason for this is that so much of Tori is in the little abstractions and non-sequiturs, and so she never seems to attack a certain point head on, but with humor, or just plain loopiness, like “Silent All These Years’” “I’ve got the antichrist in the kitchen yelling at me again / Been saved again by the garbage truck”, before launching into the emotional heart of the song. And while other singers (Jewel, a favorite target, comes to mind) go straight for hallmark-style endearments or transparently manipulative stories, Tori leaves the listener plenty of room to fill in details—most likely from their own lives. The key to a song’s lasting influence on listeners is in how much we can make it our own. Call it projection, call it identification, but I must have listened to this CD thousands of times, and “Silent All These Years” still gets me teary.
And so an account of what Little Earthquakes is about, let alone why it is essential, is going to be completely idiosyncratic, more so than with most other albums, but here we go: Little Earthquakes is about surviving, about enduring. The album’s title gives a clue, as eventually, something is going to come along that knocks down the whole life you’ve built for yourself. And when this happens, you can stay down, or you can begin to pick up the pieces and look for something new.
The songs on Little Earthquakes are uniformly excellent, but the album would qualify as essential on the strength of four songs alone: “Silent All These Years”, “Winter”, “Tear in Your Hand”, and “Little Earthquakes”. So I’ll try to just give you the highlights.
“Silent All These Years”: The song that means more to me than any other, the song about putting up with all of life’s little indignities, but you don’t mind, “hey but I don’t care because sometimes I said sometimes I hear my voice”. The theme of struggling to find one’s own voice leads into the flourish after the second verse, which is must be the most beautiful 30 seconds or so of music out there: “Years go by will I still be waiting for somebody else to understand / Years go by will I choke on my tears, until finally there is nothing left?”
“Winter”: Ok, so we’ve all done the fantasy thing, where we pretend the singer is singing to us, in love with us. But here the love isn’t quite romantic, more familial: “When you gonna make up your mind / When you gonna love you as much as I do?” This is music to listen to with all the lights off, curled up in a little ball. Here, Tori’s voice is at its most beautiful, which is saying something. And above all, the song is an affirmation that whatever happens, no matter how much it may seem like it, you are not alone. And Tori understands her audience well enough to understand that she is mother just as often as lover.
“Tear in your Hand”: When whatever you’ve been dreading most, happens to you, and you find you’re still there, what then? And the playfulness of the song aside, just standing up can be a great victory, and a single tear can hold all the power in the world. “I tell you there’re pieces of me you’ve never seen”. And the 30-second part at 2:39 in the song is the reason they let you cue back and listen to parts of songs more than once. Extra points for being the song that got me into Sandman.
“Little Earthquakes”: For when there’s more wrong with your life than breaking up with your boy/girlfriend. So whatever got you here, what are you going to do about it? At first, you have to lament; “Ooh, these little earthquakes / Here we go again / Ooh, these little earthquakes / Doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces”. Each time it happens, there’s the sinking feeling that it’s happening again, and then it happens, but what then? The song ends with the refrain of “give me life, give me pain, give me myself again”, first with just the chorus, and then Tori’s voice in the background, slowly building until it drowns out the chorus of voices. So comes pain, but with it an affirmation of life. And Tori’s voice, balanced out by the male chorus, simply must be heard to be believed.
And while anyone else’s interpretation will likely be totally different from mine, that is precisely the point. Whatever your need, you will find it here, as long as it runs deep, and it’s one you cannot ignore. You may as well focus on other songs, with the anger of “Precious Things”, or the overwhelming story of surviving a rape in “Me and a Gun”. If this sounds too melodramatic for your tastes, it wasn’t meant for you; go away. But if you find yourself, not for the first time, overwhelmed, you will find a place here.