Photo: Paulina Otylie Surys

Tori Amos: Native Invader

On her 15th studio album, Tori Amos dispenses wisdom and evokes complex, unspeakable emotions with inimitable skill.
Tori Amos
Native Invader

It’s always hard to know what to expect with a new Tori Amos album. Early in her solo career, label executives attempted to neatly pigeonhole her as the “girl with a piano” — perhaps a female corollary to Elton John, they mused. Over her long and resilient tenure, though, Amos has patently refused to conform to the expectations imposed on her. 1996’s Boys for Pele found her repurposing the harpsichord as a rock instrument while channeling rage, heartbreak, and trauma, confounding some listeners even in more alternative spheres. Just a few years later, she would begin dabbling in electronica with From the Choirgirl Hotel and To Venus and Back, and in the decades since has experimented with everything from glam rock to classical music.

While she never abandoned her deep connection with the piano, Amos has long refused to subscribe to the narrow, docile conception of femininity expected by those who would have her simply churning out lovely ballads (though Amos is a master of these, too, when the occasion demands it). If each album has represented a seismic leap into different sonic territories, it has been in the service of disrupting restrictive norms of gender and sexuality as much as genre.

Native Invader, Amos’s 15th studio album, is the continuation of a relatively new era in her career, kicked off by 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines. Featuring a breezy palette of ’70s-inflected soft rock, this era has found Amos in a mellower, reflective mood even as she continues her campaign against the patriarchy, climate change, and, more recently, Donald Trump. Her songwriting and album planning have tightened as well. Gone are the days of 18-, 19-, or 24-track Tori Amos records, as Native Invader instead sits at a comparatively succinct 13. Not to mention that the album is among her most cogent and inspired releases of the past decade.

Guitars abound on the record, courtesy of Amos’s husband and sound engineer Mark Hawley, often credited as “Mac Aladdin”. Based on past experiences, this could have been a cause for concern: Hawley’s style can be pretty kitschy, and many an Amos track has been tainted by his excessive noodling. As on Geraldines, however, Hawley mostly proves an asset on Native Invader. Take the lead single “Cloud Riders”, for instance: the guitar lends the song an easy, summery vibe that supports Amos’s comforting vocals, such that she sounds entirely believable when insisting, “we’ll be riding out this storm”.

The vulnerable, emotive rock ballad “Wildwood” also benefits from the veil of fuzz softly distorting his playing, though as always it is Amos herself that lends the song its plaintive, yearning power. And of course, not everything Mac Aladdin has to offer is particularly welcome: “Broken Arrow” may be a humid, moody, organ-driven affair at its core, but these attributes are very nearly eclipsed by his abuse of a wah-wah pedal.

Amos has also taken to regularly featuring her daughter, Tash, on each record since 2011’s Night of Hunters. Their duet here, “Up the Creek”, is by far their best collaboration yet. For perhaps the first time, Tash’s appearance does not feel forced or tacked on, and her vocals blend gorgeously with the song’s folktronica pulse. In yet another head-turning moment, “Up the Creek” also features a gospel tinge around its edges. Amos borrows a favorite saying of her Cherokee grandfather, “Good lord willing and the creek don’t rise”, repurposing it to describe the threat posed by climate change and its deniers.

Though many songs on Native Invader have the soft rock sheen of a Fleetwood Mac album, at its heart are several piano-driven numbers of the kind Amos has always excelled at. Two of these are bookends on the record: on the seven-minute “Reindeer King”, Amos’s crystalline voice echoes as if through an icy cavern, her piano alternating between pristine keys in the upper register and deep, foreboding bass notes, like tides dredged up from the deep sea. The whole experience is mystical and enchanting, and though she evokes “numb, unbearable thoughts”, as the song swells it becomes apparent as an instrument of healing.

At the other end of the album is the finale “Mary’s Eyes”, written about Amos’s mother, recently the victim of a severe stroke. A spare, complex, classical-tinted piece along the lines of 1994’s Under the Pink, the song once again lets the piano do the real talking. Sitting at the intersection of love and worry, “Mary’s Eyes” lucidly evokes the nervous desperation of sitting outside a hospital room, waiting for news.

Nestled in between is “Climb”, another ballad and one of the most poignant offerings here. Amos adopts a wide-angle lens to examine the suffering and persecution intrinsic to growing up and growing into “the woman you’ll become”, as if imparting wisdom to a younger soul. Bearing the same stoic weariness that she brought to Tom Waits’ “Time”, which she covered live on David Letterman in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 terror attacks, “Climb” is deeply personal and emotional without ever being sentimental. In the most memorable line of the whole record, Amos sings: “Only when you’re whole can you forgive / But it’s a long, long climb”. Coming from the woman who wrote “Me and a Gun”, this is pretty devastating material.

Over the course of her unpredictable career, Amos has shed many fans who refused to tolerate her wild vicissitudes. She regards her songs as independent entities requiring their own unique treatment, which has at times led her to make all sorts of unusual decisions about how to dress them up. Running through her entire catalogue, however, is a common thread addressing the ways gender, sexuality, politics, spirituality, and trauma intersect to shape our lives. Native Invader is the continuation of a relatively new chapter in her career, treating these familiar concerns with a subtlety, restraint, and poignancy that was sometimes missing in the period following 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk. Those who have strayed away, or who are unfamiliar with Amos’s music, would do well to sit with this album. Amos may never again sound the way she did in the ’90s, nor should she feel the need to. She confidently wields her status as a veteran rock performer, dispensing wisdom and evoking complex, unspeakable emotions with inimitable skill.

RATING 8 / 10