“I don’t see these songs as old stuff,” writes Tori Amos in the new liner notes to her 1992 album Little Earthquakes, which, along with its 1994 follow-up Under the Pink, has been released in a deluxe re-mastered and expanded two-disc reissue by Rhino. “[The songs] are evolving and I learn from them… And when I hear from other people about their experience with them, they become current with me, and I walk with them today.”
It’s doubtful that those who’ve been deeply affected by Amos’s music over the years will see these songs as “old stuff”, either. Amos’s strongest songs aren’t the kind that the responsive listener sloughs off easily. They challenge things, move things, change things. They shine a light on human secrets, on hidden places, on feelings and situations that you might be reluctant to face. “Good artists,” as Amos noted in her memoir Piece By Piece (2005), “are the ones that whisper our own stories back to us.”
Attentive to structure, Amos’s songs and albums have arcs, developments, progressions: Her characters seldom find themselves in the same state at the end as at the beginning. Her work inspires because it intimates, with varying degrees of ambiguity and ambivalence, that transformation is possible. The deep connections forged with Amos’s music make revisiting these early albums via these reissues a profound and intense experience overall.
As has been well documented, Amos’s 21st century work has been divisive, and much of it has been flagrantly — almost wilfully — ignored, undervalued, or poorly interpreted by critics and fans alike. For a particularly clichéd and unperceptive recent example, check out Estelle Tang’s Pitchfork piece, “The Uncool Connection Between Sufjan Stevens and Tori Amos”, in which Tang breezily dismisses all of Amos’s recorded output since the ‘90s, defining it, ludicrously, as “conventionally MOR”.
The fact is that Amos’s art has been — and remains — an art of intense contradiction and paradox: protean, multi-faceted, and exceptionally broad in its emotional and stylistic range. Moreover, she’s proved so prolific that any generalisations about her music, such as those made by Tang, sound not only superficial and reductive but plain foolish. It’s telling that, while many critics seem eager to take Amos to task for something these days, few concur as to what that “something” actually is. Jonathan Keefe’s complaint about her “predilection for deliberate, calculated inaccessibility”, for example, could hardly be further from Tang’s complaints. And there can be few artists who’ve had the same album criticised by different reviewers for being under- and over-produced, as occurred with Amos’s 2005 work, The Beekeeper.
Joe Vallese got to the nub of the matter a few years ago in a great article for PopMatters when he described Amos as “many things to many people”. “Listeners,” Vallese writes, “historically tend to invest — and project — so much emotionally in Tori and her music that when she isn’t giving them more of what made them initially fall hard for her, or what they’ve subliminally asked of her, it feels like a personal affront.” A clichéd narrative of an artist’s career sees their trajectory as one of inevitable decline, and that’s where Toriphiles-turned-Toriphobes, not getting what they initially tuned in for, endeavour to place Amos.
But, without overlooking patchy ventures such as 2009’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin or the undercooked orchestral project Gold Dust (2012), the designation doesn’t fit. Rather, the vibrancy and intricacy of American Doll Posse (2007) and Night of Hunters (2011), the continued dynamism and surprise of Amos’s live shows, and the breathtaking craft and originality of her exquisite musical The Light Princess (2013), co-written with Samuel Adamson, indicate that it’s not so much the quality of Amos’s artistry that’s declined as the ability of some to listen without prejudice.
About the greatness of Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, however, most commentators (even Pitchfork, woah) tend — these days, at least — to agree. Amos would go on to compose denser, thornier records than these two works but few that have connected with such a wide range of listeners or that define, for so many, what an Amos album does. Little Earthquakes, of course, is the coming-of-age album par excellence: a harrowing and healing set of songs that shifts compellingly from rage to calm resolve, trauma to tenderness, as it works through religious guilt, relationship conflict and the challenges of self-expression. The emotional turbulence evoked by its title is conveyed through Amos’s expressive, quicksilver vocal delivery, her keyboard dexterity, and her deeply textured lyrics. Amos is one of the great attention-to-detail songwriters, and on Little Earthquakes we see her starting to develop the mix of cryptic exhortations, poetic imagery, surrealist wit and brutal directness that’s defined her song-writing style ever since.
Despite some dated production elements that even the mostly excellent re-mastering won’t mitigate, each of the album’s 12 tracks still sounds like a reckoning: urgent, vital, profound, and operating in what Stephen Thomas Erlewine beautifully described in his review of Unrepentant Geraldines (2014) as a “shimmering space between comfort and pain”. Withering put-downs rub up against tender declarations. Painful memories surface. Epiphanies occur. There’s the abandoned narrator of “Tear in Your Hand” alerted to the expansiveness of the world — and herself — with her lover’s departure. There’s the father and daughter caught on the cusp of different, yet equally pivotal, moments of change in “Winter”. There’s the girl in “Silent All These Years” realising the bleak future ahead if she continues to repress her voice and feelings. There’s the visceral recollection of adolescent humiliations in “Precious Things”. There’s the title track’s hauntingly hymnal affirmation of shared vulnerability. There’s the playful yet profound confrontation with mortality in “Happy Phantom”. And, of course, there’s the shudderingly powerful a cappella “Me and a Gun”, a survivor’s dazed recounting of a sexual assault.
Listening again, one hears in these songs the potent spirits of the female greats of the time when Amos came of age: Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Stevie Nicks, even Carole King. But Amos’s uniqueness resides, in part, in her merging of such influences with her classical training and a whole lotta rock ‘n’ roll love. Rock, pop, torch song, classical – it’s all a seamless story for Amos. And Little Earthquakes immediately demonstrates her ability to go right to the heart of an emotional experience and powerfully communicate it through a variety of musical styles.
Far from Little Earthquakes II, Under the Pink sounds fresher and fuller than its predecessor these days: more artful in its arrangements, more assured in production, hinting at Amos’s wilder experiments to come. And yet for all its modernist flourishes — the twitchy electric guitar-work in “God”, the jazz and reggae-influenced gait of the immortal “Cornflake Girl”, the thrilling grungy bridge that erupts in “Pretty Good Year” — Amos’s second album feels like her most classical work, pre-Night of Hunters, at least. Now delicate, now playful, now thunderous and dramatic, her superb piano-playing perfectly matches the abstract narrative fragments and startling lyrical images of her writing.
Thematically, issues of female oppression and betrayal are to the fore, viewed from both a historical and a contemporary vantage. Delving “under the pink”, Amos emerges with haunting tales such as the mysterious murder narrative “Past the Mission” (complete with Trent Reznor backing vocals), “Icicle’s” paean to masturbation, and the femicide-fantasy “The Waitress”, the refrain of which “I believe in peace, bitch” sums up the album’s riveting ambivalences. The most extraordinary track, though, remains the closing “Yes, Anastasia”, a sweeping piano-and-strings epic that brilliantly mixes tempos and moods before arriving at a coda that chills the blood. “We’ll see how brave you are,” Amos sneers: a challenge to herself and to the listener.
The singles from Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink yielded nearly enough B-sides for two more albums. And with these reissues Rhino lovingly broadens the narrative of the records by supplementing each with a second disc that mixes a selection of CD single tracks and live cuts. There’ll be quibbles about omissions, of course: for one, Amos’s skill as an interpreter of others’ songs is represented only by her seminal take on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the Earthquakes reissue. And who wouldn’t rather have, say, her covers of “A Case of You” or “Strange Fruit” included rather than the serviceable but generic CJ Bolland dance remix of “God”?
Some of the featured songs, especially “Sugar” and “Take to the Sky”, would find their full form later in concert renditions rather than in these slightly undernourished studio versions. But “Honey” and “Sister Janet”, with their sinuous piano lines and biting insights, are classic Amos. And, happily, her brilliance in the live arena is well accounted for on both second discs, with the inclusion of thrilling concert versions of “Past the Mission”, “Here. In My Head”, and “Flying Dutchman”, to name but three.
Are these reissues essential purchases? Well, for those new to Amos, it’s hard to think of a better place to start than here. For Amos devotees, though, perhaps not: 2006’s epic box-set A Piano (also issued by Rhino) covered some (though not all) of the same ground, and there won’t be much here that hardcore fans haven’t heard before. Still, it’s unquestionably a bonus to have the albums and the B-sides in one place, and the new liner notes are also a great addition, especially Amos’s track-by-track commentaries on the Under the Pink songs. “There’s a bravery that has to occur for you to live your life – for you to be present in your life,” Amos writes, about “Yes, Anastasia”. “We can make so much of our lives and our choices if we’re awake for it.” What’s heartening, reading these words, is that Amos is still out there: still brave, still present, still evolving. And that, in the intervening 20 years, these magnificent early albums have lost none of their ability to disturb, enlighten and empower.