Tori Amos' 'Boys for Pele': 20 Years of Fire
It’s been 20 years since Tori Amos slammed down the gauntlet and set her piano afire, willing and possibly eager to sacrifice anyone who spurned her to writhe in Pele’s eternal flames.
She sits gazing balefully in an old rocking chair on a wooden shack porch, her leg draped over one of the arms, clutching a rifle with apparent casualness. Her expression leaves little doubt that she is perfectly willing to use the weapon if anyone dares fuck with her. She’s been out tramping in the swamp, mud all over her legs and feet. A snake circles one of the rails of the rocker, and a dead cock hangs upside down beside her. There is dark magic at work, here. This lady knows voodoo down to her bones. A wise man would turn around and head the opposite direction as fast as his feet can take him. Maybe a wise woman, too.
After all, who knows what Tori Amos might do?
It’s been twenty years since Amos slammed down the gauntlet and set her piano afire, willing and possibly eager to sacrifice anyone who spurned her to writhe in Pele’s eternal flames. Twenty years since she held up her dripping heart freshly ripped from her chest for the world to examine. Twenty years since navigating the labyrinth of emotional wreckage after what was thought to be permanent is wrenched apart. Boys for Pele still burns as hot as when first unleashed -- the raw nerve endings exposed, the emotional swings still fresh. Seething rage and the promise of retribution give way to tremulous vulnerability. There’s towering self-confidence but the hurt and pain bubble to the surface easily and often. Some of it makes no sense in a literal fashion, but is meant to evoke feelings and thoughts through a word, or a sound, or a flash of imagery. Boys for Pele is a journey, one fraught with elemental human impulses. It’s a catharsis that’s harsh and beautiful and strange and bedeviling and contradictory, but never for a moment less than authentic.
We start from a moment of stark abasement. Wan pulses of piano draw us into “Beauty Queen”, Tori’s voice numb with the realization that beauty is just a facade. Beauty only gets you so far. It’s not effective armor. Knives slash right through it. From that foundation begins “Horses”, recorded along with “Beauty Queen” in one take, Amos playing her Bösendorfer through a Leslie cabinet in a windy graveyard in Ireland. The horses are back from “Winter” and they are the mode of transportation.
Things turn dark very quickly. “Blood Roses” makes abundantly clear what prompted this journey. Human emotion is a powerful thing. The strident harpsichord rings out like surgical knives. The piano was too soft for this searing indictment of the man who wronged her. The imagery is piercingly direct: “I shaved every place that you’ve been, boy / I’ve shaved every place that you’ve been”. She’s overflowing with disgust at being used, at the realization that “sometimes you’re nothing but meat”. As with much of the album, Tori’s voice veers from sparkling beauty to savage and discordant. She’s not afraid to show how pain turns everything ugly. “Blood Roses” is a fresh wound, uncauterized, red still bubbling up from the keys of the harpsichord, ghostly church bells chiming in the distance.
Amos calls on the devil in “Father Lucifer”, a willowy swirl of shadow, a dalliance with the other side. When desperation takes hold you go to extremes. Maybe that’s where “Professional Widow” is drawn. Finally the drums kick in and a fierce rock and roll vibe intrudes for the first time. Amos rides the piano and harpsichord like a rabid lioness, completely unhinged. The imagery is deliberately confrontational and provocative. It builds to a frantic climax like a tornado swirling more and more debris until she finally lets loose as if releasing a torrent of poison from her veins, “Give me peace, love / peace, love / give me peace, love / and a hard cock!”
We pause for “Mr. Zebra”, a sinister fable set to a brisk piano march with a woozy horn section (performed by the legendary British brass collective the Black Dyke Band), in which our heroine cheerfully dispatches a rival by poisoning her ratatouille and burying her alive. That leads us to the majestic “Marianne”, partially about a girl that Amos knew in her youth who may or may not have committed suicide, but of course it’s more than that. “Marianne” is the sound of the illusions of youth shattering set to a breathtaking string arrangement by the great John Philip Shenale. Amos channels a feverish wave of intense emotion and inspiration with a riveting vocal and piano performance that was captured in its first and only take.
A crystalline chime begins “Caught a Lite Sneeze”, an expression of denial, desperation, and determination -- trying in vain to hold onto something that is inexorably slipping away. The circular electronic rhythm and intermingled piano and harpsichord, constantly tumbling forward like a water wheel, supports a beautifully intricate vocal arrangement. Perhaps in hopes of divine intervention she turns to “Muhammad My Friend”, not surprising given that spirituality and religion are topics never far from Tori’s pen. She already asked “God” if he needed a woman to look after Him on her last album, so it only makes sense to get Muhammad’s take (and she would pen “Mrs. Jesus” several years later for Scarlet’s Walk, so her quest to explore the femininity in religion knows no bias). Jazz musician Clarence J. Johnson III wails on a soprano sax that weaves like a siren through the song’s breathless climax.
But the Gods, sometimes they just don’t come through. Jupiter was a God once, and maybe still is. She calls to him as well, but his silence is deafening. No one is picking up the phone. “Hey Jupiter” is surrender, or at least an acknowledgement of reality. It’s a sad song sung alone in the dark, window open to the night sky, the stars incandescent in an uncaring universe, the full weight of loss seeping into every cell. “Hey Jupiter” is starkly beautiful, echoes of pain, regret and naked vulnerability stripped to its core -- just a piano, a pulsing organ, occasional brushes of guitar, and Tori’s voice dazzling in the starlight. She recorded a new version for single release, the "Dakota Version", complete with a trippy rhythm accompaniment.
The journey takes a detour through the Deep South, and “Way Down”, with its solemn gospel harmonies, is the gateway.The first stop is a small town, “Little Amsterdam”, caught in the grip of an old-fashioned Southern tragedy. Love, hate, sex and the human capacity for boundless cruelty are set to a languid rhythm with bluesy guitar licks, electronic feedback and radio noise coursing through a discordant melody. In Little Amsterdam sex is a commodity to be traded as required. “Playing that organ must count for something”, right? “Talula” tells us the answer is “no”, as if we didn’t already know. “Ran into the henchman that severed Anne Boleyn / he did it right quickly, a merciful man / she said one plus one is two, but Henry said that it was three / so it was, here I am”. “Talula” boasts the most lavish arrangement on the album -- when the time comes to groove, Amos doesn’t mess around. She brings in two ace musicians to form the rhythm section for “Talula” as well as with three other tracks (“Professional Widow”, “Little Amsterdam” and “In the Springtime of his Voodoo”): George Porter, Jr., bassist and vocalist for the acclaimed New Orleans based R&B/funk collective The Meters, and drummer Manu Katché, known for his work with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Dire Straits and many others. If you’ve got talent of this caliber on your album you let them shine, and Amos does that. On “Talula”, Porter’s bass is a galloping machine.
After the boisterous “Talula”, a long, pensive piano introduction begins “Not the Red Baron”, a moment of deeply felt empathy in the midst of fierce recriminations. Boys for Pele was recorded a time when HIV/AIDS ravaged millions of lives, and the red ribbon had become universally symbolic for remembrance and recognition. Amos sings like a somber hymn, “Not anyone I really know, just another pilot down / maybe I’ll just sing him a last little sound / many there know some girls with red ribbons / the prettiest red ribbons”. As with several other tracks on the album, the stunning performance of “Not the Red Baron” is a first take.
The brief, off-kilter “Agent Orange” begins the the powerful final stanza of the journey, quickly giving way to the bittersweet “Doughnut Song”, a stricken expression of hurt and regret. He’s moved on and found someone who could be what she never could, one half of a whole. “You told me last night you were a sun now with your very own devoted satellite / happy for you and I am sure that I hate you / two sons too many, too many able fires”. “In the Springtime of His Voodoo” is pure badass, defiant weirdness that represents the hottest fires Pele breathes on the record. It courses a bitter trail of betrayal, broken promises and failures. “Got an angry snatch, girls you know what I mean / when swivelin’ that hip doesn’t do the trick”. She derisively castigates not only her former lover, but his new flame -- “I know she’s not that foxy / but you gotta owe something sometimes / you gotta owe, boys! / when you’re your momma’s sunshine / you’ve got to give something sometimes / when you’re the sweetest cherry in an apple pie!”
After that last furious flare of fire, “Putting the Damage On” is the rational anchor that weighs the album down to reality and distills all the abstract thoughts that have been racing through her head. It’s that quiet moment when all the tears have dried and the slow process of moving on can begin. “Putting the Damage On” is about coming to grips, as difficult as that proves to be, and standing up and dusting yourself off, drawing on power you know is within yourself, somewhere. At least it’s a start, but it’s hard, as she tells the stars in the pensive final coda, “Twinkle”: “That means I sure can / that means I sure can / so hard / so hard.” Thus ends the album, on a note of fortitude, tremulous through it may be.
There is a classical grandeur to Boys for Pele, a timelessness that stretches far beyond 1996. Tori Amos is simply not operating on the same plane as the rest of us. The imagery she employs, the power and conviction of her singing and playing, the defiantly unorthodox song structures, moments of astonishing beauty and harsh ugliness… it reflects the real dynamic of a relationship, perhaps many relationships, but it does so through the lens of fearless imagination riven from personal turmoil. Boys for Pele is audacious, often difficult and impenetrable, not an easy listen that immediately captures its audience with sharp melodic hooks. It’s completely uncompromising, and if it seems to wallow in self-pity at times, well, that’s what we humans often do when we’ve been hurt down to our core. It’s an album like no other, and it only could have come from Tori Amos. It’s winding curves and unexpected trajectories are endlessly fascinating. Twenty years have passed since Boys for Pele was released and viscerally captured the feelings of countless fans who have also lived the heartbreak, confusion and turbulence the album expresses so poetically. People relate to it because it’s undeniably real and compelling, and often speaks to their own experiences. Its power is undiminished. Boys for Pele continues raging unabated, eternal fires blazing.