Tori Amos returns with a mature and assured collection of tunes that may just be her best in more than a decade.
The most striking aspect about Tori Amos’ newest record of original material (her 11th overall—not counting any cover albums, Christmas records, or “song cycles”) is that it isn’t easily lumped into the work she’s been producing as of late. She’s indicated on a few occasions that she came out of the past five years of working with orchestras, writing musicals, and singing Christmas songs with a new found re-invigoration for making music. However, Unrepentant Geraldines isn't dripping with the excitement you would expect from a reinvigorated artist. Though it’s not a drastic change from the familiar styles of Scarlet’s Walk, The Beekeeper, American Doll Posse and Abnormally Attracted to Sin, it fits somewhere outside that tetralogy of mediocre Tori, and possibly begins a new trajectory of maturity and assuredness.
Geraldines begins with the soft cooing of “America”, where she sings: “The other America / You can find her Sundays sitting by a stream / On her own / All alone”. It’s a soft non-intrusive track that harkens back to a tentative Tori. It’s refreshing, to be honest, not to be hit with the audaciousness that has typified her work from the ‘00s onwards. “Trouble’s Lament” follows with its southern swag and muted production quality. It’s a good enough song that rings with those characteristic Tori moments that make you like a song for the three or four seconds when the hook comes in. However, with only two songs in and an overabundance of that horrible guitar playing that is “Mac Aladdin” (ie. her husband) it’s becoming worrisome that this record may be her take on “Americana”. One listen to the simple “Wild Way” and that fear is quashed when she sings: “Yes, there was a time / You didn't always get your way back there where my heart / Was not so easy to invade”. It’s an endearing piano-centric love song that focus inwardly and acts as a nice follow-up to “Lust” from Venus.
At only three songs in, it has become clear that although there may be continuous and interlacing themes throughout this new record, there isn’t, for the first time in 12 years (!), an overreaching concept that is meant in some preposterous manner to tie these songs together. For the first time since To Venus and Back, Tori isn’t trying to sell you something. Tori has never shied away from the “concept” (and I use that term loosely) record. In fact, she’s revelled in it. When in the beginnings of her career the music had an organic cohesion that kept the songs in place, her later offerings have abandoned that process in favour of forcing the music to fit a concept that becomes too specific and convoluted to be truly moving. On Unrepentant Geraldines, she has managed to let the songs come together on their own, without constraining the listener to hear them in some specific manner. We can finally decide for ourselves how they fit this impressionistic painting theme that she has running throughout the album, making it sound lighter, more inviting and never dripping with some bigger sense of itself.
However, before we get ahead of ourselves that this record represents Tori’s glorious return to form, Geraldines is still rife with the inevitable “bad” Tori songs that seem to be a mainstay for Tori records lately. These tracks, and thankfully there are only really four of them, come right smack dab in the middle beginning with the ostensible “16 Shades of Blue”. It’s an odd track that is made odder by Tori’s lack of commitment in truly layering it with the atypical sounds that the song requires. “Blue” is amateurishly produced and dates Tori as a producer—perhaps a sign that it may be time to begin the dreaded collaboration with a different producer besides herself that can bring her songs to life. Having said that, though, it’s still a fairly good tune that is saved by some wonderful bridge moments and is the best of these “bad” songs. “Maids of Elfen-mere” is simple enough, but its lyrical content weighs it down and makes it far too “fantasy” to warm up to. In comes the roaring “Promise” that is the first proper duet between Tori and her 13 year old daughter Tash. The song is riddled with schmaltz too thick to forgive and just makes the whole experience embarrassing. “Promise”, with lines such as: “Tash: Promise not to take / Tori: Never take your phone / Tash: I mean take their word / Tori: You mean over yours”, comes off as a novelty track that should have remained between mother and daughter and has no place on this (or any other) Tori Amos record. Since Tash was born, Tori has never truly managed to capture their relationship properly in song that doesn’t come off as trite and emotionally manipulative (remember “Ribbons Undone”?). The unfunny, “Giant’s Rolling Pin”, is next—it’s a song about pies and the NSA or some blithering nonsense and is a complete throwaway track. The bright spot is that there are only four of these songs, one of which is still fairly salvageable, making the number of great tracks far outweigh the bad ones.
When the magnificent “Selkie” begins, you remember why you fell in love with this amazing woman who captured your heart. And thankfully, the rest of the album (even the ’70s-inspired title track) seamlessly glide through to the utterly captivating album closer “Invisible Boy”—the adorning and indisputable highlight of this entire record. A song so heart-wrenchingly beautiful that it would make purchasing Unrepentant Geraldines completely worth it even if the rest of the album was filled with reimaginings of “My Posse Can Do” or “Hoochie Woman”. It’s a song in the vein of “Dragon” or “Merman”, only more striking and touching. It’s a sincere and simple lullaby meant to celebrate your heartache instead of chastise you for it.
With Unrepentant Geraldines Tori managed finally to drop the act and step forward with what her most avid fans have been clamouring for for years—a mature and self-assured album, not clouded with unnecessary concepts or tied down by some pretentious and under-thought overarching message. An album that showcases her instrument (the piano) and isn’t overshadowed by the same band she’s been working with since ‘02s Scarlet’s Walk. An album that despite its three or four misgivings (and those are some pretty big misgivings) is STILL one of her very best in some time. It isn’t flippant like Abnormally Attracted to Sin, or rushed and convoluted like American Doll Posse. It’s not cutesy like The Beekeeper, or boring (production-wise) like Scarlet’s Walk. It’s soft and considerate, mature (in places) and heartwarming. It showcases Tori Amos the artist and musician placing her and her gifts front and centre in an honest and sincere way, hopefully leading her down a musical path that will only brighten her catalogue of wonderful and beautiful music.