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The Tori Amos Canon - Part 1: Characters

Today we begin a week-long look at Tori Amos’ discography, and rather than construct a chronological take on her career, we thought it would be way more fun to remix it all into a new order to tell the story of her 20-year career. On all of the records in today’s presentation, we examine Tori’s relationship to creating and inhabiting characters in her music, and occasionally in the flesh.

Today we begin a week-long look at Tori Amos’ discography, and rather than construct a chronological take on her career, we thought it would be way more fun to remix it all into a new order to tell the story of her 20-year career. On all of the records in today’s presentation, we examine Tori’s relationship to creating and inhabiting characters in her music, and occasionally in the flesh.

American Doll Posse (2007)

“With Tori, you are dealing with different personalities, but they aren't personalities like, here is a person who likes to wear polka dots and here is a person who likes to wear jeans. They're more like Jungian, mythic personalities,” according to John Philip Shenale, on the topic of Tori’s ability to inhabit characters in her music. “Some might say, ‘Tori looks cute as a blond.’ But that's not what she's doing, playing dress up. She's doing that too, sure, but she's really actually talking about some deep shit. Whereas Lady Gaga, for example, and I do love her dearly, she's talking about important things, but she's not doing it on the level that Tori is and always has. With Tori, we're talking university level, scholarly level. There are not a lot of other artists like that, who like to really dig deep, and Tori loves to dig deep. She really likes it there. Both burying things and digging them out.”

On American Doll Posse burying and digging are recurring themes in the narratives sung by five of Tori’s alter egos -- Isabel, Pip, Santa, Clyde and “Tori” -- as they clashed by night. These characters conspire to tell a story that is at turns all burning white hot fury and aggression, and tuberose-scented opium dens haunted by the Black Dahlia. Tori borrowed from Golden Age Hollywood, from the Greek pantheon, from pop culture’s obsession with putting women into confining boxes of too-easy categorization, and from deep within own personae. And the result of this alchemy is perhaps Tori’s most explosive departures from one record to the next.

American Doll Posse found Tori at her most costumed and theatrical, and the music reflects each of these characters’ lives. On songs like “Smokey Joe", Pip recounts a tale of bodies beneath black ice, while Santa interprets Tori’s most sinuous rock song, “Body and Soul". Clyde, the most ethereal of the bunch, as reflected in the lush, almost otherworldly “Beauty of Speed", and Isabel, the political activist, singling out corruption in songs like “Yo, George". “Tori” sang “Code Red” with a sinister, diamond-tough sheen and “Digital Ghost", a power ballad in the best sense of the word (think: Tori’s riff on arena rock) that finds her wondering if “the you I knew is fading away", is one of the finest songs in her respective catalogue.

Playing these characters showed Tori’s willingness to push against popular perception of what her work is, and who she is, with a glittering, operatic juggernaut of a record that pushed those boundaries but also clearly pushed Tori in unprecedented directions as a performer. “It helped, when we were doing that record, [that] she knew that we’d have all of these characters, and we knew ahead of time Pip would sing this one, and so and so would sing this one. It definitely gave you a sonic palette to draw from, just in that visuals can really help,” recalls Jon Evans. “Even though we didn’t [necessarily] know what everyone was going to look like, she could describe: ‘This person is like this,’ ‘this is her personality type,’ ‘this is what they would listen to.’ It was like working with a different singer or a different person altogether. You try to draw from different influences and different sonic templates to come up with things. At the same time trying to draw a thread through all of it so that it doesn’t five completely different records put into one.”

Though some critics dismissed it as overly ambitious, and a few snarked that it was just Tori wanting to play dress-up, Posse remains one of her most electric, exciting and energetically-produced musical moments. Though the term “concept record” is constantly thrown around and misused when it comes to Tori’s work, it actually applies in this case as Tori investigates each persona as an actress approaching a role might to tell five incredibly detailed narratives that end up converging into a rock epic that she had playfully hinted at throughout her career on songs like “She’s Your Cocaine” or “Raspberry Swirl” during the from the choirgirl hotel-era. “You Can Bring Your Dog” and “Bouncing Off Clouds” are surprisingly guitar-heavy; even on the project’s most moving track, the doomed romance of “Dragon,” the guitar zaps the warm keyboard tones like a death phaser. “Working with her on American Doll Posse really stimulated exploration for me, from the way the record sounded and the way she approached its sound -- there's a certain rock element to the record that I really liked, from the sound of the drums to the guitars, said Shenale. “But it was all influenced by what she was doing. She had shown me the photography she had been doing for the album before and it was one of those moments where you're like "Whoa, where did this come from?" That's the best thing about her. There's always a new angle to something you thought you already understood. There's always more underneath. And Doll Posse was one of those experiences.” Matt Mazur

Key Track: “Big Wheel”

Take a Closer Look: “Digital Ghost”

Read PopMatters’ American Doll Posse-era interview with Tori.

Watch: Santa Performs “Programmable Soda”


Night of Hunters (2011)

“Delicate ruthlessness.” That’s how Tori Amos described her approach to Night of Hunters, an ambitious concept album that eschews her usual alterna-pop format in favor of a lush chamber soundscape. Backed primarily by Poland’s renowned Apollon Musagete Quartette, the project was commissioned by classical music powerhouse Deutsche Grammaphon, who tasked Amos with composing a 21st century song cycle inspired by classical music themes spanning over 400 years. “Night of Hunters was really tough,” Tori told PopMatters. “It was my biggest challenge as a producer. Mark [Hawley, husband and sound engineer] was ruthless about it being organic. No electronica anywhere. He was adamant. He looked at me and said, ‘If you’re going to mess with the masters, Tori, don’t be casual about it. Over the years, there had been these pop and classical mash-ups that were kind of a mess. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want it to be a piss take or perceived as a joke or be perceived as some '70s, cape-wearing lady. That isn’t what I wanted to do.”

To make it even more complex -- and it wouldn’t be a Tori record if she didn’t -- Amos crafted a dense, but impressively cohesive, narrative about a woman named “Tori” who flees her home after a core-shaking fight with her spouse (the frantic, utterly gripping opener “Shattering Sea”), encounters a shape-shifting fox named Annabelle (voiced, on multiple tracks, by her daughter Natashya Hawley, whose bourgeoning talents lie somewhere between a prepubescent Adele and Regina Spektor), snacks on some peyote (on the playfully harmonic Natashya duet “Cactus Practice”), encounters an entity called The Fire Muse (the title track duet with niece Kelsey Dobyns that can only be described as the theme from some lost, sinister Disney film), and ultimately comes to terms with the passage of time and its weathering of the relationship (the bittersweet closer “Carry”). To boot, there exist moments of such sheer vitality, her piano playing so thunderous and unpredictable, you’d think it was 1994 all over again: the chilly, methodical build of “Battle of Trees”; the creeping intensity of “Fearlessness”; the old-school, whimsical vocal layering that ties “Edge of the Moon” to its sparse beginning verses; and the sprawling but cogent 10-minute epic “Star Whisperer".

“We must have spent 150 or 200 hours discussing and plotting Night of Hunters, talking about everything tangential, talking about binary stars, talking about uranium, all the things that kind of wove the magic within the album,” recalled John Philip Shenale. “When I work with her, she creates this cocoon for me. That's the great thing, that she constantly reminds me what I'm supposed to be doing. She's constantly reminding me, ‘This is the context. This is the texture of that.’ The choice to do an octet was a brilliant choice because it made the sound very immediate. An orchestra wouldn't have worked for that record, but the essence of an orchestra is embedded in it, waiting to be hatched. “

What’s more, Night of Hunters serves as a formidable companion to 1996’s Boys for Pele, widely considered Amos’ masterwork. On both records, Amos finds herself on dark journey toward some semblance of enlightenment where self-reflection is often so painful she can only get by with a little help from her friends (not to mention that Pele’s infamous cover art mirrors a classic scene from the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter, which Amos has said inspired both albums). No, there isn’t a banshee cry for “peace, love, and a hard cock” on Hunters, nor is she hammering lustfully at a harpsichord, but given a close spin after Pele, it plays like the sage, nurturing response of an artist approaching middle-age, asking the same unanswerable questions of her wild youth with sober grace and a sense of serenity that’s been a long time coming. Joe Vallese

Key Track: “Star Whisperer”

Take a Closer Look: “SnowBlind”

Read PopMatters’ Night of Hunters-era Interview with Tori.

Watch: “Shattering Sea”

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