“I’m working my way back / to me again,” Tori Amos sings on the haunting “Oysters”, an echo-drenched piano ballad so evocative of her early work that you might find yourself checking your Facebook feed to make sure you haven’t been time-warped back to 1994. It’s one of those rare moments in which an artist more than two decades on manages to recapture a bit of the bottled lightning that commanded our attention in the first place. “Did I somehow become you / without realizing” she ponders in a dialogue between past and present selves. The metaphors may be familiar — Amos laments that “not every girl is a pearl / with these ruby slippers” — but the confluence of poignant vocal delivery and brisk, cinematic keyboarding manages to eschew redundancy and present something fresh and distinct. Latter-day Amos defectors, you’ve been warned: this song may cause an incurable bout of nostalgia.
“Oysters” also stands out among the many gems on Unrepentant Geraldines, Amos’ 14th studio album, for being one of its four strategically placed and spaced tracks to feature only piano accompaniment — surprisingly, something she technically hasn’t done all that often on record: the stunning “Weatherman”, which could pass for a lost outtake from Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, paints a portrait of a widower’s mourning through the changing seasons; “Selkie” is a tender retelling of the Celtic seal-woman myth; and on album-closer “Invisible Boy” she comforts her husband as he wrestles with fatherhood, his own mortality, and the fear of being “only made out of clay”, as simple and devastating an image of aging as any.
It’s fitting that Amos would include so many stripped down moments on the record, since it has been highly touted via press materials as a “return to her core identity as a composer of contemporary songs of exquisite beauty” after five years immersed in classical themes, orchestral arrangements, and musical theatre. And yet, these songs aren’t merely “Easter eggs” for the (im)patient fan who prefers Amos alone at her grand Bosendorfer; rather, they comprise the heart of the record, a reminder us that Amos’ preternatural abilities and instincts as a musician are always birthed at the piano, regardless of the shape they eventually take on. In that respect, the record also displays Amos masterfully toeing the line between restraint and effortlessness, the songs feeling both full and airy. Unrepentant Geraldines also marks the first time in 15 years Amos hasn’t confined herself to the limitations of the conceptual. Beginning with 2001’s cover album StrangeLittleGirls, Amos has been rigorously exploring character and overarching narrative to mixed results, the records often overstuffed with extraneous songs out of conceptual necessity rather than sonic cohesion. Geraldines, by sheer virtue of not owing its structure to a predetermined storyline, allows Amos to once again weave threads and themes together organically, trusting her prodigious impulse without worry for how the pieces might fit.
What emerges is undoubtedly her strongest record since the post-9/11 opus Scarlet’s Walk, several tunes even managing to best that album’s preoccupation with Americana, and our relationships to each other culturally and to the land itself. The aptly titled “America” features a deceptively serene Amos paying homage to Simon and Garfunkel’s chillier moments as she considers the splitting of our country into two factions thanks to “fools untouched by clairvoyance”. The sensual “Wedding Day” boasts an entrancing blend of tribal beats and country twang, while lead single “Trouble’s Lament” could score the trailer for a Tarantino flick. On the spare but intoxicating “Wild Way”, the prickly protagonist admonishes a lover for criticizing her temperament, reminding him of a “time you didn’t always get your way / back there where my heart was not so easy to invade / when my battlements were strong / before the Pilgrims came.” For Amos, our personal and collective histories have always been one in the same, and on Geraldines she’s exceptionally good at mining this metaphor’s riches.
The exploration of contemporary American life is less successfully rendered on “Giant’s Rolling Pin”, a curious bit of Dr. Seuss-tinged storytelling that mixes synthesized brass and pots-and-pans percussion with guitar riffs reminiscent of Jason Mraz at his beachiest while Amos calls out the NSA, the FBI, and three sweet ladies in Florida who apparently make great pies. Though it stands out as the record’s most upbeat piece the ingredients never quite come together. Similarly, “The Maids of Elfen-Mere”, which has all the makings of classic Tori with its layered vocals and a warm piano line, is little more than a literal description-in-song of a painting of the same title, unable to quite hold up to the strength of its surrounding tracks.
Perhaps the record’s boldest move, though, is how unflinchingly Amos confronts the realities of being a wife, mother, and, most harrowingly, a middle-aged woman in the viperous music industry. “16 Shades of Blue” deals with aging head on, Amos targeting her ire at “those who say / I’m now too old to play” over an electronic drum loop (and no shortage of blips and beeps and ticking clocks and cool synth waves). It’s at once incredibly busy and sparse, Amos’ alarmingly clear voice taking center stage as she bitterly rejects the consolation that “50 is the new black” and yearns to “stop Father Time”. On the sneakily experimental “Rose Dover” — at turns witchy and ominous, then as Technicolor-bright as an ABBA song before collapsing into a lullaby chorus — Amos makes a plea to her daughter Tash to not “throw being a kid away” in response to a panicked realization that her “reality is now called make believe / Imagination’s funeral killed by the teenage me.” Amos and Child duet on the gospel-soul of “Promise”, a kind of mother and daughter iteration of “Lean on Me”, in which Amos “promise[s] not to say that I’m getting too old”. It’s a sweet, uplifting moment on an otherwise melancholic record that miraculously manages to avoid being saccharine or corny, thanks in large part to the impressive pipes on 13-year-old Tash. But for all of its comforts and assurances, there’s a dark undercurrent of Hammond organ that permeates the track and, knowing Amos, it’s surely no coincidence that it ends on a similarly bleak isolated note as the title track of 2005’s The Beekeeper, an unsettling dirge in which Amos bargains with Death to spare her own mother.
And on the topic of title tracks, Unrepentant Geraldines’ is a doozy. It wouldn’t be a Tori Amos album without some patriarchal ass whooping and she more than delivers here. While Amos’ reverence for the Magdalene and her fury at the men who have revised and buried her biblical significance may seem old-hat by now, “Geraldines” reenergizes this trope by seamlessly fusing jazz, punk, and ambient soundscapes. After the wailing declaration of “I’m gonna free myself from your aggression / I’m gonna heal myself from your religion”, the song takes a surprisingly austere turn, Amos conjuring a peaceful scene of “vicar’s wife” who “plays the bass like a Messiah…running through the rain”. Once again, it’s just Amos and her piano, enacting the very intimacy she’s evoking in her lyrics, a pure convergence of content and form that exists here, blessedly, in abundance.