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.
'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.