The Tori Amos Canon - Part 5: Curios

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.

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.

Watch: “Give”


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”

Next Page

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.