The Tori Amos Canon - Part 1: Characters

[30 September 2012]

By PopMatters Staff

Today we begin a week-long look at Tori Amos’ discography, and rather than construct a chronological take on her career, we thought it would be way more fun to remix it all into a new order to tell the story of her 20-year career. On all of the records in today’s presentation, we examine Tori’s relationship to creating and inhabiting characters in her music, and occasionally in the flesh.

American Doll Posse (2007)

“With Tori, you are dealing with different personalities, but they aren’t personalities like, here is a person who likes to wear polka dots and here is a person who likes to wear jeans. They’re more like Jungian, mythic personalities,” according to John Philip Shenale, on the topic of Tori’s ability to inhabit characters in her music. “Some might say, ‘Tori looks cute as a blond.’ But that’s not what she’s doing, playing dress up. She’s doing that too, sure, but she’s really actually talking about some deep shit. Whereas Lady Gaga, for example, and I do love her dearly, she’s talking about important things, but she’s not doing it on the level that Tori is and always has. With Tori, we’re talking university level, scholarly level. There are not a lot of other artists like that, who like to really dig deep, and Tori loves to dig deep. She really likes it there. Both burying things and digging them out.”

On American Doll Posse burying and digging are recurring themes in the narratives sung by five of Tori’s alter egos—Isabel, Pip, Santa, Clyde and “Tori”—as they clashed by night. These characters conspire to tell a story that is at turns all burning white hot fury and aggression, and tuberose-scented opium dens haunted by the Black Dahlia. Tori borrowed from Golden Age Hollywood, from the Greek pantheon, from pop culture’s obsession with putting women into confining boxes of too-easy categorization, and from deep within own personae. And the result of this alchemy is perhaps Tori’s most explosive departures from one record to the next.

American Doll Posse found Tori at her most costumed and theatrical, and the music reflects each of these characters’ lives. On songs like “Smokey Joe”, Pip recounts a tale of bodies beneath black ice, while Santa interprets Tori’s most sinuous rock song, “Body and Soul”. Clyde, the most ethereal of the bunch, as reflected in the lush, almost otherworldly “Beauty of Speed”, and Isabel, the political activist, singling out corruption in songs like “Yo, George”. “Tori” sang “Code Red” with a sinister, diamond-tough sheen and “Digital Ghost”, a power ballad in the best sense of the word (think: Tori’s riff on arena rock) that finds her wondering if “the you I knew is fading away”, is one of the finest songs in her respective catalogue.

Playing these characters showed Tori’s willingness to push against popular perception of what her work is, and who she is, with a glittering, operatic juggernaut of a record that pushed those boundaries but also clearly pushed Tori in unprecedented directions as a performer. “It helped, when we were doing that record, [that] she knew that we’d have all of these characters, and we knew ahead of time Pip would sing this one, and so and so would sing this one. It definitely gave you a sonic palette to draw from, just in that visuals can really help,” recalls Jon Evans. “Even though we didn’t [necessarily] know what everyone was going to look like, she could describe: ‘This person is like this,’ ‘this is her personality type,’ ‘this is what they would listen to.’ It was like working with a different singer or a different person altogether. You try to draw from different influences and different sonic templates to come up with things. At the same time trying to draw a thread through all of it so that it doesn’t five completely different records put into one.”

Though some critics dismissed it as overly ambitious, and a few snarked that it was just Tori wanting to play dress-up, Posse remains one of her most electric, exciting and energetically-produced musical moments. Though the term “concept record” is constantly thrown around and misused when it comes to Tori’s work, it actually applies in this case as Tori investigates each persona as an actress approaching a role might to tell five incredibly detailed narratives that end up converging into a rock epic that she had playfully hinted at throughout her career on songs like “She’s Your Cocaine” or “Raspberry Swirl” during the from the choirgirl hotel-era. “You Can Bring Your Dog” and “Bouncing Off Clouds” are surprisingly guitar-heavy; even on the project’s most moving track, the doomed romance of “Dragon,” the guitar zaps the warm keyboard tones like a death phaser. “Working with her on American Doll Posse really stimulated exploration for me, from the way the record sounded and the way she approached its sound—there’s a certain rock element to the record that I really liked, from the sound of the drums to the guitars, said Shenale. “But it was all influenced by what she was doing. She had shown me the photography she had been doing for the album before and it was one of those moments where you’re like “Whoa, where did this come from?” That’s the best thing about her. There’s always a new angle to something you thought you already understood. There’s always more underneath. And Doll Posse was one of those experiences.” Matt Mazur

Key Track: “Big Wheel”
Take a Closer Look: “Digital Ghost”
Read PopMatters’ American Doll Posse-era interview with Tori.
Watch: Santa Performs “Programmable Soda”

 

Night of Hunters (2011)

“Delicate ruthlessness.” That’s how Tori Amos described her approach to Night of Hunters, an ambitious concept album that eschews her usual alterna-pop format in favor of a lush chamber soundscape. Backed primarily by Poland’s renowned Apollon Musagete Quartette, the project was commissioned by classical music powerhouse Deutsche Grammaphon, who tasked Amos with composing a 21st century song cycle inspired by classical music themes spanning over 400 years. “Night of Hunters was really tough,” Tori told PopMatters. “It was my biggest challenge as a producer. Mark [Hawley, husband and sound engineer] was ruthless about it being organic. No electronica anywhere. He was adamant. He looked at me and said, ‘If you’re going to mess with the masters, Tori, don’t be casual about it. Over the years, there had been these pop and classical mash-ups that were kind of a mess. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want it to be a piss take or perceived as a joke or be perceived as some ‘70s, cape-wearing lady. That isn’t what I wanted to do.”

To make it even more complex—and it wouldn’t be a Tori record if she didn’t—Amos crafted a dense, but impressively cohesive, narrative about a woman named “Tori” who flees her home after a core-shaking fight with her spouse (the frantic, utterly gripping opener “Shattering Sea”), encounters a shape-shifting fox named Annabelle (voiced, on multiple tracks, by her daughter Natashya Hawley, whose bourgeoning talents lie somewhere between a prepubescent Adele and Regina Spektor), snacks on some peyote (on the playfully harmonic Natashya duet “Cactus Practice”), encounters an entity called The Fire Muse (the title track duet with niece Kelsey Dobyns that can only be described as the theme from some lost, sinister Disney film), and ultimately comes to terms with the passage of time and its weathering of the relationship (the bittersweet closer “Carry”). To boot, there exist moments of such sheer vitality, her piano playing so thunderous and unpredictable, you’d think it was 1994 all over again: the chilly, methodical build of “Battle of Trees”; the creeping intensity of “Fearlessness”; the old-school, whimsical vocal layering that ties “Edge of the Moon” to its sparse beginning verses; and the sprawling but cogent 10-minute epic “Star Whisperer”.

“We must have spent 150 or 200 hours discussing and plotting Night of Hunters, talking about everything tangential, talking about binary stars, talking about uranium, all the things that kind of wove the magic within the album,” recalled John Philip Shenale. “When I work with her, she creates this cocoon for me. That’s the great thing, that she constantly reminds me what I’m supposed to be doing. She’s constantly reminding me, ‘This is the context. This is the texture of that.’ The choice to do an octet was a brilliant choice because it made the sound very immediate. An orchestra wouldn’t have worked for that record, but the essence of an orchestra is embedded in it, waiting to be hatched. “

What’s more, Night of Hunters serves as a formidable companion to 1996’s Boys for Pele, widely considered Amos’ masterwork. On both records, Amos finds herself on dark journey toward some semblance of enlightenment where self-reflection is often so painful she can only get by with a little help from her friends (not to mention that Pele’s infamous cover art mirrors a classic scene from the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, which Amos has said inspired both albums). No, there isn’t a banshee cry for “peace, love, and a hard cock” on Hunters, nor is she hammering lustfully at a harpsichord, but given a close spin after Pele, it plays like the sage, nurturing response of an artist approaching middle-age, asking the same unanswerable questions of her wild youth with sober grace and a sense of serenity that’s been a long time coming. Joe Vallese

Key Track: “Star Whisperer”
Take a Closer Look: “SnowBlind”
Read PopMatters’ Night of Hunters-era Interview with Tori.
Watch: “Shattering Sea”

'Scarlet’s Walk' and 'Strange Little Girls'

Today we begin a week-long look at Tori Amos’ discography, and rather than construct a chronological take on her career, we thought it would be way more fun to remix it all into a new order to tell the story of her 20-year career. On all of the records in today’s presentation, we examine Tori’s relationship to creating and inhabiting characters in her music, and occasionally in the flesh.

 

Scarlet’s Walk (2002) 

“What do you plan to do with all your stories?” Amos could hardly have made her label-move to Epic with a more appropriate release. Scarlet’s Walk is as epic as albums come, an immersive 18-track journey across a country—geographically, metaphorically and spiritually. “Let me tell you something about America,” Amos sang on “Pretty Good Year”, and, eight years later, Scarlet’s Walk finally made good on that particular promise.

Scarlet’s Walk is epic. It’s epic in the true sense of the word, the way Aeneid or Odyssey is an epic,” said John Philip Shenale. “That album is extremely varied but is still telling a narrative. It’s kind of galactic. There’s many systems working within one. It really captures a person’s lifetime, as opposed to something like Night of Hunters which is an evening. Scarlet is a massive bundle of events through time and through people’s lives. I think people really love that album because of that. Different albums have different meanings and resonances for certain people, but I think Scarlet is really the lexicon of all those emotions, all in one place. And I think that’s why Tori loves it so much too.”

Amos’s US of A is equal parts geographic and imaginative space, and the ever-twisting road traversed by her eponymous heroine is one on which the personal and the political, the historical and the contemporary, dynamically intersect. Disillusioned porn stars, 9/11, the Native American injustice, ruptured and healing relationships, the Mexico/North America conflict—it is all here on this uncommonly rich, unavoidably political, and hauntingly beautiful work. Musically, the album’s inviting, measured and meltingly seductive tone (inspired by the crystalline production of the work of bands such as Fleetwood Mac) fooled some into thinking that Amos had mellowed.

Closer attention revealed that her lyrical scalpel was slicing as sharply as ever, condensing piercing insights—“seems in vogue to be a closet/misogynist homophobe”, “even a glamorous bitch can be in need”, “messiahs need people dying in their name”—into memorable aphorisms that skewered some of the inequities of the age on songs like “Carbon” and “Virginia”. “It’s so rich, and it holds so much of her stories nestled in it. Especially the song ‘Gold Dust’, Shenale recalled. “For me, that was probably one of the heaviest pieces that I had ever worked on with her because it was so emotionally raw. There are moments of it I couldn’t even get through without crying while I was arranging it. That’s not unusual for me, because every record I’ve ever worked with her on has been emotional and I have to stop and ask myself, ‘God, what did I just work on all these months? What am I feeling now?’ And it’s always a life-changing experience. ‘Gold Dust’ took me six weeks to get together. It was real journey, that single song.“

Throughout, Scarlet’s Walk gives voice to the experiences of the culture’s “others” (women, gays, Native Americans); the stunning title track demands that—and shows how—these voices will be heard. If Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or Neil Young had made this record it would be considered, widely, a masterpiece. But in a world of fame “academies” and instant pop “idols” it’s still a small but heartening miracle that popular music of this complexity and artistry was still out there, being made.
Scarlet’s Walk is one of those classic records that may never happen again because the music industry may never support a record like this for anybody, because of the nature of the economics of making a record like that,” said Shenale. “That was a very expensive record, it took a long time, and the support of a lot of people to do, so it was very multifaceted. People can’t make records like that anymore.“ Alex Ramon

Key Track: “Scarlet’s Walk”
Take a Closer Look: “I Can’t See New York”
Watch: “Taxi Ride”

 

Strange Little Girls (2001) 

From Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” through Chas & Dave’s “London Girls” to Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, reinterpretations of other artists’ songs have always occupied an important position in Amos’s repertoire. And covers of songs by male performers have occupied an even more pivotal place. With Strange Little Girls, however, Amos approached the covers album as concept album, offering reinterpretations of 12 diverse male-authored tracks from the perspectives of an assortment of female characters, developed in collaboration with Neil Gaiman. The project was inspired originally by the homophobic and misogynistic messages which Amos believed to be prevalent in popular song at the beginning of the 21st century. “[P]eople were talking to me about how popular music was getting more violent,” she recalled in Piece by Piece. “Male songwriters were saying these really malicious things … Neil, Mark [Hawley] and I really felt … that a generalized image of the antiwoman, antigay heterosexual man had hijacked Western male heterosexuality and brought it to the mediocrity of the moment.”

In this way, the record’s concept resonates with the work of second-wave feminists such as Kate Millett who critiqued male representations of women and descriptions of sexual violence in contemporary literature. The innovation of Strange Little Girls is to extend this debate into the realm of rock, and to recognise mainstream music as one of the primary cultural spheres in which gender roles get played out and patriarchal ideology disseminated. Hélène Cixous’s challenge as articulated in the “The Laugh of the Medusa”—“If woman has always functioned ‘within’ the discourse of man, … it is time for her to dislocate this ‘within,’ to explode it, turn it around, and seize it, to make it hers”—is one that Strange Little Girls takes up. As well as her interpretive gifts (and the album boasts some of her most inventive and commanding singing), Amos applied her genius for sequencing to the album, opening with the dawning of a “New Age” (a startling take on a neglected Velvet Underground song) and closing with the fusion of anima and animus on a sublime rendering of Joe Jackson’s “Real Men.” “I wanted to complement the significance and scope of what she was doing with that cover,” said Adrian Belew, who played guitar on the project. “I tried to make the guitars as sweeping as possible. That’s what we were going for, and I think we achieved it.”


In between, a chilling rendition of Eminem’s “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” (recast here as a ghostly mother-to-daughter message), exquisite, moving versions of Lloyd Cole’s “Rattlesnakes” and Tom Waits’ “Time”, and a squally reinvention of Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” were among the album’s highlights. Tori includes an ambitious reading of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” as a Second Amendment debate, as well as a somber, numb take on 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love”. “There’s a thing on the record called ‘drill guitar’, when I played the guitar with a drill. Literally,” recalls Belew. “You take the end of the drill bits and roll them across the strings and it creates a melotronish or string-section kind of sound. There’s some mystery to it.”

Supplemented by Gaiman’s wonderful “Portraits of Girls” narratives and some superb Cindy Sherman-inspired liner photography, Strange Little Girls is a rewarding and subversive work that boldly challenges the listener to reassess their relationship not only to each of these songs, but also to the wider cultural attitudes that they embody and endorse. “I felt like we were really in tune together, with what we were searching for,” added Belew. “It was very comfortable working with her. I was surprised at the whole of the record [when I first heard it]. The songs I was unfamiliar with, in the context of what I had played, really changed the way I saw her as a producer and what she had envisioned. I frequently sign Strange Little Girls CDs, and the evidence is there that this record is important to people and they make the association between me and Tori and my contribution to the record. And then I realize they were probably turned onto me by Tori, and that’s an extraordinary thing for a musician to know. It is reflective of the community she builds in her work.” Alex Ramon



Key Track: “97 Bonnie and Clyde”
Take a Closer Look: “Raining Blood”
Watch: “Enjoy the Silence”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/163713-1.canon-characters/