On her new record, Tori Amos has gone to great lengths to make her music easier to listen to. But for longtime fans, this has made things very hard.
What I am about to write will sound very strange coming from a music critic: I have no idea how I feel about the new Tori Amos album, The Beekeeper. Not only that, I don't think I can know how I feel about it. Listening to Tori Amos now is like meeting an old friend from high school: There is history there, there is a remembered closeness, there is nostalgia for the connection we once shared. But more than anything else, there is awkwardness. We've moved in different directions, and now we can barely make conversation. Are we still friends? It's hard to say, since we'll always be friends. But are we now that kind of friends who are more comfortable apart rather than together? In the past rather than the present?
When I was in high school, I loved Tori Amos. Under the Pink (1994) and Boys for Pele (1996) were touchstones of me and my friends' adolescence. Tori Amos was a mystery that only we were able to understand, and an apparent space alien to everyone else. Unlocking the mystery of her music was a special rite, and the treasures we discovered were all the more precious because the outer layer of opacity frightened away the amateurs. Take, for example, the kick-ass rocker "Professional Widow" from Boys to Pele. Over one of the dirtiest, raunchiest, downright nastiest riffs ever put onto record, Tori spits out this nugget of wisdom:
Honey bring it close to my lips
Don't blow those brains yet
We gotta be big boy
We gotta be big
Starfucker just like my Daddy
Just like my Daddy selling his baby
Just like my Daddy
Gonna strike a deal make him feel
Like a Congressman
It runs in the family
Reading it on paper, it makes absolutely no sense. It is absurdist poetry, if you can call it poetry at all; yet, when I hear that song and sing those words along with Tori, I feel every word so deeply in my gut that it defies logic. My love for Tori during that time was not logical. It was born out of need, out of longing, out of a demand that music transport me out of adolescence and into transcendence. When you're sixteen, you can put a lot of pressure on music to do that work, and you're willing to invest a lot of yourself in pursuit of that ideal.
At its best, Tori Amos's music inspires this kind of devotion. It's like early R.E.M. or Radiohead: music that is almost willfully oblique, yet holds rewards for those who devote the time, energy, and mania of millions of spins of the album. Music that relies more on intellect and ideas can feel more cultish than music that relies on guts and emotion. Compare Radiohead and Pearl Jam, both of whom I also loved in high school. I can still enjoy Pearl Jam's new material: We are friends who keep in touch. Radiohead, however, is a bit of a stretch for me these days. I have a sense that its newer albums have worth and complexity; It's just that I don't need to crack the code. There is very little code to crack in Pearl Jam's music: it is a raw and visceral and emotional. Radiohead, on the other hand, is obtuse, with cut-up lyrics, cut-up sounds, and cut-up ideas. To delve into that morass, the listener must be a devotee. To the rest of us, it seems to demand too much for pop music.
That's how I feel about Tori Amos. I have little doubt that The Beekeeper, like Radiohead's Hail to the Thief, contains many levels of sophistication and insight. Her current fans must revel in picking apart those layers. But to my ears, and to the ears of my wife, a teenage Tori freak during the mid-1990s, all of Tori's music after 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel sounds so tame, so wishy-washy. It seems that as she has grown older, Amos has less interest in writing music so gripping and affecting as on her first three albums. She used to be known as the woman who humped her piano. None of the material on The Beekeeper would inspire piano humping. Along with this mood-mellowing has been an increased interest in taking on personas. Her 2001 covers album, Strange Little Girls, presented a song cycle in which various emblematic girl characters were voiced by Tori on each song (in the CD booklet, Tori appears dressed as each of these characters). While some obvious applications of this trope were effective (such as Tori's cover of Eminem's "Bonnie and Clyde '97," in which she takes on the voice of the murdered wife), other connections seemed obscure or arbitrary. Her first two albums did not rely on such inscrutable concepts. It's becoming increasingly apparent that each new Tori Amos record is a further exploration of roles, different voices and points of view, rather than a further exploration into Tori Amos herself. This is not necessarily bad, but it's not the Tori Amos that many of us fell in love with. On Little Earthquakes I had the sense I had private access to this amazing singer's most intimate interior spaces; on The Beekeeper, that intimacy and access has been complicated by artifice, an apparatus of tropes, symbols, and themes that obscures the human being behind it all.
Again, Boys for Pele is the touchstone. That album contained many gems, but it also contained songs like "Beauty Queen/Horses", "Father Lucifer", "Marianne", "Agent Orange", and "Twinkle": indistinct, somewhat sappy ballads that seem formless and gutless when compared to the emotional intensity of "Hey Jupiter," "Putting the Damage On", "Talula", "Professional Widow", and "In the Springtime of His Voodoo". These tamer songs made a distinct break from Tori's body of work theretofore. While her first two records certainly featured quiet songs, they were the loudest and most gripping quiet songs you ever heard. I could deal with impenetrable lyrics as they long as they directly conveyed passion, but the ethereal, wandering, off-kilter emotional drift of these songs lost me. The cover image, which depicted Tori seated on a country porch, dressed in muddy rags, clutching a rifle like it was a phallus, showed us a persona, an actress. The question then was who was singing these songs? Tori Amos, the confessional recording artist, or the actress on the cover of this record? Tori used to be all about unbridled honesty and directness (best epitomized by her harrowing a cappella song "Me and a Gun" on Little Earthquakes, which starkly detailed her experience of being raped). Her songs were so compact and hard-hitting, giving you a glimpse of the complexity and variety of emotions bubbling beneath her surface. As her songs became less direct and memorable (I've heard some of her Beekeeper material described as sounding "half written") and the personas began to eclipse the real person behind the music, I felt myself drifting away from Tori.
And The Beekeeper keeps me drifting. It's about as long as a CD can be without pouring over onto another disc: Its nineteen songs span nearly eighty minutes (another Tori feature first seen on Boys for Pele). The album lacks cohesion and would be better if it were cut down by a half hour. In fact, sampling random songs on my iPod was much better than going dutifully from track one to track 19. Listening to it straight through, the songs begin to meld into one another after about 45 minutes. Most are mid-tempo, light piano rock with obscure lyrics about butterflies, Anglophilia, ribbons, and other effusive ephemera, all delivered in that cooing, piping whisper that is quintessentially Tori. This is all captured perfectly in the album's lead single, "Sleeps with Butterflies". My Tori would never have written something so tame, so easy-music-while-you-work. Once, she tore your heart out with "Silent All These Years", or kicked you in the gut with "Professional Widow," or blasted out your speakers with "God" or "Cornflake Girl". While "Sleeps with Butterflies" has a good chorus, I can barely appreciate it through all the... easiness. Which for me is extreme difficulty.
Listening to The Beekeeper, like all of Tori's recent material, is an awkward experience for longtime fans. It's like when you're sitting across from that old friend, and you have no idea what to say. So you talk about old times. It feels good, but it's also sad. You wish you were either back in those times when things weren't as muddled as they are now, or you just wish you hadn't arranged to see this person again in the first place. So you grin and bear it, before popping in the Strokes or Modest Mouse and dancing your blues away.
This change in style is, of course, entirely Tori Amos's prerogative. But has Tori kept all her fans from the mid-1990s? Are me and my wife the only ones who have defected? Will The Beekeeper gain her any new fans? Perhaps a fresh crop of artsy, bohemian teenagers will pour over her fractured lyrics and suggestive masks and feel privileged and chosen by that knowledge, just as I did years ago. Maybe Tori's style has changed less than I'm suggesting, and it's me who has changed. When you're 16, you wear out discs, listening night after night, reading into every nuance and gasp, every stutter and shiver. Appreciating music is one of the teenager's most powerful forms of self-expression, especially when it involves music most adults would write off as nonsense. But when you're 24, you don't want to work as hard for your epiphanies. Or, to be more precise, you don't need to work as hard for your epiphanies, because you don't need those epiphanies so desperately anymore.