Today’s spotlight explores albums in Tori Amos’ repertoire that are arguably more divisive among listeners due to their unorthodox structures and diversity in production and sound. The essays that follow seek to unpack each of these records’ complexities with careful consideration of Amos’ and her collaborators’ intentions and both popular and critical reception of the works.
Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009)
Hot on the (very high) heels of a world tour in support of American Doll Posse, the slick Ziggy Stardust-inspired glam-rock spectacle that saw Amos embodying a different character each night, Tori went back into the studio to release an EP of tracks to bid each member of the Posse adieu (intended as a bonus on a live DVD that never materialized). But Amos’ deft, creative mind rarely sticks to its original course, and soon the 17 tracks of Abnormally Attracted to Sin came to fruition. Touted by Tori as a record concerned with everything from “the idea of erotic spirituality” to “people struggling with power [and finding themselves] attracted to those with power” to “women finding their inner strength,” and accompanied by a DVD of “visualettes” purposed to help tell the songs’ respective stories, one might find it difficult to unearth the album’s thematic center. But don’t let the chatter distract you: Sin is arguably the most autobiographical Amos has been in years, and at its crux, an album of survival in the face of harsh personal and professional predicaments.
The wonderfully dark opener “Give”, adorned by glittering synths and goth-lite industrial drums, finds a pained, but not decidedly not bitter, Amos musing on her spiritual and pragmatic need to create (“I must give/so that I can live”). The bleak lament “Curtain Call”, with its piano and drum lines melding together to create a sonic thunderstorm, sees Amos reflecting on her time in the music industry and when she’s both risen above and succumbed to its seedy dealings. “You’ve got you a fast horse, darling / but all you do is complain / it ain’t a Maserati,” she sneers on “Fast Horse”, another stab at the business she’s tirelessly fought to change the landscape of, while “Starling” confronts escalating feelings of resentment and jealousy in the midst of those battles. “Welcome to England”, with its urgent dueling keyboards, paints an intimate portrait of Amos contemplating leaving her “daily hell” and ultimately crossing an ocean for love.
Greater worldly concerns also permeate the record: “Flavor” puts a spacey perspective on the dangers of capricious God worship, while “Strong Black Vine”, a contemporary piece of protest rock by way of a James Bond theme, is a fiery reminder that when the dusts of war and earthly greed settle, Mother Nature will be the only one left standing. “What’s amazing is that, say, on a song like “Strong Black Vine” which has that strong Middle Eastern line that I’ve put down, and then I see her in concert and she’s playing almost exactly what I’ve done. And it’s almost infuriating!” joked John Philip Shenale. “I’ve finally figured out how she does it: she takes the most important aspect of each of the parts and she weaves it together as one part, which is one of her brilliant gifts. Let’s say, for example, there’s a synth line going over a Wurlitzer line she’s playing and there’s strings over that, what she’ll do is she’ll get general sense of what she’s hearing, but she’s not playing those exact parts, she’s weaving a new part. She may go back and forth between colors and all that, but it’s truly always a reinterpretation of the record, and she always approaches it like that as opposed to so many people who just think, “Oh God, we have to play that exact part exactly the same live or people won’t recognize the song.” Tori throws all that out the window. She thinks, “Here’s the major stuff, and now what am I going to do with it to make something new of it?” And that’s why so many people love to come to her shows, and they’ll see multiple shows on one tour to see what she’s going to do. I was able to see four shows on this last tour, and every night was different! I mean, I’m not saying she totally plays everything different, but the feelings and the tempos and the focuses, the selection of songs… she basically reads and touches and changes everything. And that’s what people are excited about. You’re seeing an organic process happen in front of you. And I think she looks forward to that. It’s really part of her creative process.”
For better or worse, Amos has become expert at overstuffing her albums and in the case of Sin, the tracks that could have been b-sides are fairly easy to spot: the “ride or die” sentiment of “Not Dying Today” is fitting, but musically would be more at home on a late ’90s Springsteen album, and it’s a bit head-scratching to think a musician who once took hallucinogenic trips with shamans could pen “Mary Jane,” a cabaret-tinged tale of a mother clueless to her teenage son’s penchant for sparking doobies. In terms of its diverse production, Abnormally Attracted to Sin is most akin to from the choirgirl hotel, and enigmatic album closer “Lady in Blue” could very well be that record’s 13th track. In what can only be described as David Lynch directing a scene set in a jazz club on another planet, “Lady” finds Amos crooning over an unsettlingly discordant mash up of moody synths, flutey mellotron, and a cracking-whip drum loop. “Boys play well into midnight,” Tori sulks, “can I join you?” And following her final asking, she declares that she “can play too”, her signature Bosendorfer kicking up in the mix, the song exploding into a three minute jam band outro. It’s the kind of track so bold and unusual in its conception that it re-contextualizes all that’s preceded it, and reminds us of the magic that can happen when an imagination as restless as Amos’ gets it exactly right. — Joe Vallese
Key Track: “Lady in Blue”
Take a Closer Look: “Police Me”
Read: PopMatters’ interview with Tori during the Abnormally Attracted to Sin era.
The Beekeeper (2005)
In many ways, Amos’s 2005 release The Beekeeper proved her most surprising yet. Following the well-deserved success of the mature sound she cultivated with the challenging but accessible Scarlet’s Walk, it was anyone’s guess in which direction her sonic impulses might swing. When the first press released dropped, so too did the jaws of many a diehard: Gospel choirs! Hammond organs! Afro-Cuban drums! Running with the sparse details, her devoted online community painted a wishful portrait of the much-imagined “sequel” to Amos’ own beautifuldarktwistedfantasy, Boys for Pele. But once the lead single “Sleeps with Butterflies” surfaced, with its breezy and unimposing piano line, romantic guitar accompaniment, and ultra-warm vocals cooing lines like, “are you having/regrets about last night?” it became clear she had something entirely different in mind.
And here’s where The Beekeeper gets, well, sticky: at 19 tracks divided into six “gardens” — the limited edition release included a seed packet to grow your own wildflowers — it seemed Amos simply had too much on her mind. Rightly praised by critics as a gentler, more approachable Tori, the record is undeniably gorgeous and, content wise, there’s a clear thematic through-line of love, loss, and betrayal (on the Damien Rice duet, “The Power of Orange Knickers,” for example, she boldly denounces adultery as a form of terrorism).
But the record also has a tendency to confuse: in addition to its uncharacteristically tranquil sound, Amos also puts her cheeky sense of humor on full display, beat-boxing her way through “Cars and Guitars” (where she uses mechanic jargon and makes sexual metaphor from the contents of a toolbox); name-checking the shoe floor at Barney’s in the hokey “Hoochie Woman”; and damning the otherwise deliciously blasphemous “Original Sinsuality” with its punny title. Though the promised organ and drums are present on the record, apart from a few tracks, the Hammond is often relegated to the atmospheric (the powerful opener “Parasol”; the political rant “General Joy”; the witchy, lite-funk of “Sweet the Sting”) and Matt Chamberlain’s reliably exquisite playing of those ethnic drums at times melts away in the mix (a re-mix of one of Amos’ better breakup ballads “Goodbye Pisces,” where Chamberlain’s acoustic and electronic drums layer and slap at one another, is sorely needed).
Incongruities aside, The Beekeeper is also brimming with moments where Amos reminds us of her peerless abilities as a composer, lyricist, and producer: the compassionate and subtle “Mother Revolution” may be the finest anti-war elegy put to record; the brazen and sermonic “Witness” boasts the album’s most striking and nuanced use of the Gospel choir, their harmonies soaring and scatting over Amos’ frenetic organ work; the final two minutes of “Barons of Suburbia,” a feverish battle-cry against leeching record companies and other bullies of the patriarch, arguably come closest to capturing the uninhibited passion of her live performances on a studio recording; and with the sweeping “Marys of the Sea,” Amos has penned the definitive take on the ambiguous relationship between Jesus and the Magdalene (but nice try, Gaga). It is the haunting title track, though, that transports the listener to another place entirely as only Amos can, as she finds herself bargaining with Death to spare her sickly mother. “I have come for the Beekeeper,” she obstinately declares over the mournful wheeze of the Hammond and a chilling electronic loop that mimics knuckles rapping on a door, “I know you want my Queen/Anything but this.”
It is the presence of this Tori, the one vulnerable yet unafraid to look danger in the face if it means having questions answered and curiosities met, that reminds us no matter how divisive her latter-career dalliances, she’s still in complete, unapologetic control. — Joe Vallese
Key Track: “The Beekeeper”
Take a Closer Look: “Ireland”
Watch: “Sleeps With Butterflies”
‘To Venus and Back’ and ‘Y Kant Tori Read’
To Venus and Back (1999)
With a loose, almost experimental structure evoking the pronounced feeling of floating in space, To Venus and Back marks perhaps the only time across her body of work where Tori has really let her guard down. Listeners are bracingly taken into unknown directions without much context or concept. A double album, Venus embraces Tori’s Jungian shadow-self: the Hitchcockian-cool detachment and fiery amorous, ripe-with-carnality dualism that she has become known for by committing both elements to the same record — her impeccable live show and her adventurous and technically-sound studio production side.
From the very first ambient noises that recall Venus’ hot, swirling winds on the album’s startling straightforward rocker “Bliss” (“straightforward” musically, that is – the first lyrics are the abstruse “Father…I killed my monkey. I let it out to taste the sweet of spring”) to the two-part epic electronic dirge of the madcap eight-minute “Datura,” this is a record born of probing, interplanetarily and artistically. “That was the first time I spent time in the studio with her,” recalls collaborator Jon Evans who played bass on both discs of Venus. “I remember feeling very encouraged to explore sonically and harmonically and being also very nervous about being just there and playing on the record, and wanting to do a good job. There were a lot of great bass players that had played with her and recorded with her before, so I felt a lot of responsibility…but also had a lot of encouragement.”
Evans sentiment is reflected in the adventurous instrumentation of Venus, which showcases Tori and her players at their most inquisitive and relaxed, and it is that alchemy that yields some of the most daring and classic tracks of her career. “Juarez” is a bleak look at the unsolved mass murders of women in that region of Mexico where Tori opines that “no angel came”; “Lust”, on its surface, is a pure Tori ballad but on closer inspection is gorgeously minimalist in its production and dripping with plaintive eroticism; and “Spring Haze” hints at the compositional shift Amos would come to embrace on 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, incorporating a full band treatment to a classically “Tori”-esque song where each instrument, including Tori’s own voice, gets a solo of sorts.
The alternately bitter and possessed “Suede” perhaps best encapsulates the themes and underlying emotional core of Venus, its musical style, and its darkly innovative palette with lines such as “anybody knows you can conjure anything by the dark of the moon” accentuated by a clicking, ominous beat and foreboding sense of witchy mystery. Immediately following “Suede” comes the tender romantic waltz of “Josephine”; with pared-down band instrumentation and hauntingly enigmatic lyrics (“in an army’s strength therein lies the denouement”), the track reminds listeners to ready themselves for the unexpected when taking this rocket ship journey with Tori and her crew, because in the two minute span of that song, Tori takes her listener to Napoleon’s bedside, through DuMarnier levels doomed romance, and safely back to earth before the mindfuck of “Datura.” Anything goes on this record and the result is an enduring, distinctly “Tori” sound. To Venus and Back remains amongst the best, most prescient works Tori has produced to date, showing us the ghosts of Tori’s past (“Glory of the 80s”) and present (“Bliss”), all while looking far ahead with a wink and a trademark sly smile at the convex shape of her future (“Concertina”). It captures each element flawlessly and crisply, remaining modern, brightly visionary and full of verisimilitude. — Matt Mazur
Key Track: “Suede”
Take a Closer Look: “Josephine”
Y Kant Tori Read (1988)
Let’s get something straight: ‘twas divine intervention that made the minister’s daughter’s first studio album a flop. Or maybe it was the on-its-way-out teased hair and pirate chic ensemble — sword included — she sported on the album cover. Either way, the music certainly isn’t to blame.
Despite years of self-flagellation for having sacrificed her artistic integrity for the chance to make a pop record on a major label (see: dozens of interviews where she erroneously cites a Billboard review for calling it “bimbo music,” when the critic in fact said the very opposite), Y Kant Tori Read — a reference to a young Amos’ inability to read sheet music — is actually pretty fucking good. Sure, you may recognize echoes of that era’s most potent pop hits — a cursory listen will call to mind early Madonna, the best of Pat Benatar, even the bizarro-sensuality of Prince — but Amos’ real crime in her initial attempt at stardom was simply that she was too smart for her own good. For all the record’s cheesy 80s metal guitar flourishes, cartoonish bass lines, and redundant tales of wrongheaded affections, there exists a bounty of clever metaphor, literary references, meditations on spirituality and the unknown, and quietly scathing commentary on Reagan-era materialism and self-interest.
In “Floating City”, a disillusioned Amos pleads, over the swell of synthesizers, with some unnamed entity to rescue her from a crumbling Earth and into a galactic paradise. The hilarious “Heart Attack at 23″, which features a piano intro not unlike what you’d hear from latter day Tori, has Amos wagering the painfully ironic bet that her wayward lover will only miss her when his indiscretions drive her to literal heart break. While “Fayth” and the goofy “Pirates” both sound and are about precisely what their titles evoke, the quintessential rock ballad “On the Boundary” and the feisty dance-funk of “You Go to My Head” offer tonally opposite but equally effective takes on the dangers of indulging a lover’s needs ahead of one’s own.
But the standouts, of course, are the songs that Amos would come to make peace with nearly a decade later by inviting them into her live sets: the Caribbean-Latin fusion of “Cool on Your Island,” a somber samba that has all the melodic and lyrical trappings of a memorable Top 40 hit, and the mesmerizing “Etienne Trilogy,” perhaps the strangest, most elegant ode to a one night stand ever put to record, with its talk of past lives and curious use of the traditional Scottish bagpipe ditty “Skye Boat Song” as an outro. Not exactly what you’d expect to hear on a record whose sole video music video featured its scantily clad, sword-wielding songstress prancing around a “ghetto city”-scape after being ticketed by the very police officer who, just moments earlier, broke into her car and stole her panties. (Seriously.) — Joe Vallese
Key Track: “Etienne Trilogy”
Take a Closer Look: “On the Boundary”
Watch: “On the Boundary”. For the first — and likely only — time, in 2011, Amos beautifully renders an obscure ballad from her failed 1988 hair-rock record Y Kant Tori Read.