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2014 columns, Music

Loving (and hating) Tori Amos

by Chad Parkhill , June 13, 201411 Comments

Tori Amos

 

Tori Amos is hardly to blame for the existence of her fans’ expectations, nor for their disappointment when her work does not live up to them – but that doesn’t prevent that disappointment from feeling intensely personal, as though she’s slighting all of us when she releases an album as tepid as, say, 2009’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Of course, Tori is not the only recording artist who has ever disappointed their fans, but it is perhaps a testament to the emotional heft of her brilliant early work that we feel entitled to her very best work every time she releases a new album.

Every fellow Tori Amos fan – or, to use the cultish in-group terminology, ‘ear with feet’ – I have met doesn’t merely like her work; they love it viscerally, passionately, and with the same mixture of overwhelming adoration and a kernel of hatred for that same adoration that characterises the most tempestuous of love affairs. Our love for Amos cathects around personal traumas, rough patches, periods of whole-of-life upheavals. (A friend of mine confessed that he once planned to commit suicide to the soundtrack of her song ‘Gold Dust’, because it was so perfectly sad, but that the opening couplets convinced him to go on.) We love her and her work, of course, but we also partially despise her for making us so craven.

These strong emotions make it difficult to be an ‘ear with feet’, or perhaps a former ‘ear with feet’, especially in the face of a decade-long decline in quality in her oeuvre after 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk (arguably her last truly strong album). We expect a ‘return to form’ with each new album, and instead she delivers something overstuffed – the three albums that followed Scarlet’s Walk average just under twenty songs each – and shockingly unedited, as if she couldn’t bear to part with a single song idea, no matter how banal. (How else to explain The Beekeeper’s ‘Ireland’, a banal piece of fluff whose opening line is ‘Driving in my Saab, on my way to Ireland’?) Perhaps the worst part is that there is always something redeemable in these albums, such as American Doll Posse’s twenty-third song, ‘Dragon’, a meditative and understated piece of uncommon beauty. This mixture of strong emotional investment and increasingly disappointing albums with a few redeemable features lends the relationship I and many others have with Amos’ work a hint of Stockholm Syndrome – no matter how bad she gets, we love her and hold out hope that next time, things will be better.

For my own part, I quit caring about Tori Amos’ new releases after 2009’s album of reinterpreted Christmas carols, Midwinter Graces (possibly the nadir of her career). Her projects since then have had a quiescent character about them: a classical album that pays tribute to Bach, Debussy and Schubert (2011’s Night of Hunters); a collection of orchestral reinterpretations of her back catalogue (2012’s Gold Dust). I was happy to avoid giving these more than a cursory listen – they seemed only to confirm that Amos was no longer in the business of attempting to make fresh, vital music, and had shifted from an artist with something to say to an artist interested primarily in tending to their legacy. And I would have happily ignored her latest, Unrepentant Geraldines, were it not for Alex Macpherson’s thoughtful and positive review of it in the Quietus.

Unrepentant Geraldines is by no means perfect – there’s the obligatory piece of undercooked whimsy (‘Giant’s Rolling Pin’), and at just under an hour, it’s still a touch too long – but in its directness it more than compensates for the oblique, costumed misfires of its predecessors. It’s relieving to hear that Amos is no longer aiming for (and missing) the grand theatricality of her earlier work, instead focusing on turning out well-crafted little gems of songs – ones whose lustre is dulled, perhaps, by age and wisdom, but which are no less beautiful for it.

For this reason Unrepentant Geraldines feels like a break from Amos’ usual pattern of massively overhyped new albums that promise a ‘return to form’ but deliver something else. By delivering something so contrary to our expectations, something that with its gentle reserve risks being perceived as underwhelming, Amos has begun a process of creative rebirth that could herald a second act in her career – and a new relationship to her work for her fans. Or, as she puts it on album highlight ‘Oysters’, ‘I’m working my way back to me again.’

Chad Parkhill is a Melbourne-based writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Australian, Killings, The Lifted BrowMeanjin, and The Quietus, amongst others.

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11 thoughts on “Loving (and hating) Tori Amos

  1. I think Tori would benefit greatly from working with a producer, which she hasn’t done since 1994. And she records mostly at home, with her husband as sound engineer, who has always seemed to me like a “yes man” when it comes to her work. She needs someone in the studio to really push her and work with the songs…her talent is still there, no doubt, and I understand that she likely doesn’t want to compromise her vision of a new work with anyone, but something has indeed staled since Scarlet’s Walk. I think someone like T Bone Burnett would be a really good fit for her, and would be able to pull new and interesting things from her. He produced Elton John’s last couple albums, and there is a marked difference in quality.

    Tori albums have always been on the longer side, and I was pleased to see Geraldines come in under an hour (just under, if you’re counting). I think that also has a lot to do with the fall of the CD single as something people buy. With nowhere to really put her B-sides (and no producer to help her with which songs to leave off an album), I think she feels that she needs to get as many songs from the session as she can onto the album, even if it’s disruptive.

  2. This “review” disturbs me. It IS possible to have a less dysfunctional relationship with the music than the author describes, most of which is based on outsized album expectations. I’m also sad that he has no clue as to the greatness of the “Night of Hunters” album.

  3. Nigh of Hunters is a beautiful, ambitious album. I don’t understand how fans can so easily dismiss it.

  4. I never understand complaints about the length of the albums. Shocking confession: there isn’t a single Tori album where I don’t skip tracks, from Little Earthquakes on. But I’d rather have more tracks and the option to skip them than not. I get that albums are packages, but I think it’s a mistake to look at them the same way you would a book. I’ve read plenty of books that I think could be better off 150 pages shorter. But to me, each song is a book, and like with any author, you have your hits and misses, and you don’t go back to read – or listen to – the misses. That doesn’t mean I wish the songs had never been written. Plus, there are songs all the time that I initially react negatively to that later hit me like a freight train with their meaning to my evolving life. I dunno. I’ll quote Hotel to sum it up: “Give me MOOOOORE, Give me MooooOOOORe, Give me MooooOOOOORE.” Ha.

  5. I really never understand the logic people use to critique Amos’ post 2005 creative output. I find the quality of her later work far superior to her 90s period. I don’t expect her to release another Little Earthquakes or Under the Pink, because to be so self-involved in ones 40s is tragic. And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her experimenting on the records some consider to be among her weakest. When you compare her work to what passes as talent in pop music today, she can’t be beat. Each new record is researched, inspired and says something about the world that we live in now. I get it, when people first listened to Little Earthquakes they were young and impressionable and remember how it made them feel. Just because people don’t have those feelings about her later work is not a reflection on Tori, but on the listener. If you’ve grown with her you’ll get it. If you haven’t, you won’t. But to say the work after The Beekeeper is bad, is just plain lazy. I expect music to make me think, and Tori never disappoints on this front.

  6. and here I’ve been thinking UG is just a tad too short. Not even an hour? More, please! Also, Night of Hunters is amazing. Haters gonna hate, but seriously….NoH is beautifully heartbreaking, and that’s what Tori does best. You’re not too cool for Tori, so get over yourself and your perceptions, and listen to the music without your pretense.

  7. Ugh. I have no time for the ‘critics convention’ that deems all ‘good’ fans hate Tori’s ’05 to ’09 work. I personally *love* the ‘Unholy Trinity’ of American Doll Posse, Abnormally Attracted To Sin and Midwinter Graces. They’re great albums – with missteps as on an any other album (how conveniently people forget misfires from the earlier records like China, Agent Orange, The Wrong Band the whole Strange Little Girls mess.) I’m loving Geraldines, but it’s not as exciting as when Tori is confident to skip the piano-ballad template and really mess around with some noise, whether it’s electric or classical.

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