Having flirted with classical music forms at various points in her 20-year recording career, Tori Amos has finally committed in full. On Night of Hunters, her 12th studio album and, notably, first for Deutsche Grammophon, the Peabody Conservatory prodigy draws on four centuries of European art music (Bach, Schubert, Chopin, Satie, among others), as well as on popular balladry and elements of contemporary musical theater, to create a song cycle by turns intricate and impressionistic, demanding and enchanting. There are no guitars on the album and, save for Amos’s signature Bösendorfer, no percussion instruments. Instead, the album’s 14 songs are arranged for piano, strings, woodwinds, and voice. Doubtless, it is the first and the last of these — Amos’s piano and her voice, more exquisite here than ever — onto which most listeners will immediately fasten.
They will have to hold on tight. Amos has always been proudly uncompromising in the articulation of her ever-evolving musical and lyrical visions, and it is hard not to applaud, even marvel at, Night of Hunters’ intense focus, meticulous craftsmanship, and bravura performances, not to mention its sheer artistic ambition. But with a running time of 72 minutes — and let’s remember that this is a song cycle, meant to be consumed in a single sitting — this predominantly slow, somber album ultimately overstays its welcome. No less wearying (especially for those who don’t already identify as “Toriphiles”) is Amos’s determination to translate deeply personal emotions and experiences into the elliptical, and often obfuscatory, language of New Agey narrative, self-conjured pseudo-ancient mythology, and neo-pagan nature personification. Little wonder, then, that the publicity materials include a track-by-track introduction penned by Amos herself. Oddly, and tellingly, however, such extra-musical, extra-commercial annotation serves only to make Night of Hunters’ story and characters seem more, not less, distant and incoherent.
Nevertheless, the album does contain its share of moments of gripping drama, undeniable poignancy, and iridescent beauty. The opening track, “Shattering Sea”, sketches a scene of eerie intrigue, with its now brooding, now pounding accompaniment and forcefully issued double denial, of sanguinity and of responsibility: “That is not my Blood on the bedroom floor /That is not the Glass that I threw before.” On “Cactus Practice”, a memorable song about an intoxicating rite of emotional initiation (“Will you induct me into the drink of the cactus practice?”), Amos and her daughter, Natashya Hawley, work a fine melody into a rich weave of piano and woodwinds. Hawley returns to the microphone on Night of Hunters’ most traditional pop ballad, “Job’s Coffin”, and on “The Chase”, sounding not only improbably mature and surefooted (she was age ten at the time of recording) but also uncannily like her mother. The album closes with “Carry”, a benediction in which Amos’s character, painful but necessary lessons having been learned, promises to forever bear in her heart the memory of a departed beloved.
According to Amos, Night of Hunters’ “protagonist is a woman who finds herself in the dying embers of a relationship. In the course of one night she goes through an initiation of sorts that leads her to reinvent herself.” On her new album, Amos asks her audience to reinitiate itself once more, as she reinvents herself yet again — this time, in the guise of what she always already was: a true virtuosa, with all the artfulness, and preciousness, that term implies.