Tori Amos and I have been in somewhat of a metaphorical fight for the last few years, ever since the release of 2009’s Abnormally Attracted To Sin. Although at the time, I gave that album a solid A- ranking, it quickly grew off me, something no Amos album had ever done before. Live performances of the material were hit and miss, with some songs becoming stronger live (Strong Black Vine; Welcome To England) and others falling shockingly flat (Give; Flavor). The album is forgettable: the songs may, individually, be decent caliber, but nothing grabbed me emotionally long enough to stay with me, aside from Welcome To England, Fire To Your Plain and Curtain Call (and believe me, those choices surprise me; Welcome To England fell flat on very first listen for me, and grew over time).
Had this been the only instance of one of her albums not grabbing me the way her work usually does, it would be easily dismissed; however, there was The Beekeeper in 2005, complete with the ‘feels like I’m on valium’ solo tour. While tracks from it grew on me over time and have become staples in my listening, most have done quite the opposite, becoming joke fodder. With Amos flopping with me on two of three albums, I was nervous.
And then Midwinter Graces happened, an album so god-awful for the most part I didn’t even bother to listen again to review it; I posted my live tweeted version and called it a day. Granted, I hate Christmas, but I still find next to nothing redeemable about it, never even bought it (and I’m a completist), and never listen to it at all.
Establishing this backstory, one understands why I warily approach Amos’ latest release, Night of Hunters. Tori Amos’ music has been a staple for me, a powerful force in my life and reflection. To be disappointed by three of four albums is disheartening and a little frightening; no fan wants to realize that she has grown apart from a beloved and respected artist’s vision. The concept this time: a song cycle inspired by classical music pieces. NOH tells the tale of a woman whose love has left her alone in the Irish night. Through an ensuing journey through past events and present emotions, facilitated by a shapeshifting creature and Fire Muse (played respectively by Tori’s daughter, Natashya, and her niece, Kelsey), Tori comes to understand what has happened to the relationship and love, and carries those lessons into the new day.
I’m going to approach this work as intended, but a few caveats: first, I do enjoy classical music to a degree, even if I am not versed enough to speak of it in technical terms or readily name composers by ear; and second, I have heard a significant portion of this album previously out of order, and I’m thus far unimpressed and unengaged. I’m hoping that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts, but I am nervous. Without further ado, a first listen track-by-track review, strictly from the lay-fan perspective.
Shattering Sea: I’ve heard this one previously and love it, thus continuing Tori’s “first track is a good track” history (I don’t include Midwinter Graces in this). The opening is reminiscent of the opening notes of Pandora’s Aquarium: eerie, dark, foreboding. This is a good thing. The jarring introduction of the full quartet and piano feels very ‘ballet’ to me: evocative, emotive, setting a scene. “That is not my blood on the bathroom floor,” Amos declares firmly, and we’re in Pele territory, lyrically. Shattering Sea could be a lost b-side lodged firmly between Boys For Pele and From The Choirgirl Hotel, in my estimation, and live rather comfortably there. In hearing the echoing vocals of the “every line…” bridge, I fear a horrid live Jackie’s Strength moment on tour with this one – the dreadfully artificial echo-repeater effects in lieu of backing loop. It will sully the song for me, without a doubt.
Snowblind: Shuddering…. I’m sorry, Tori, but why is Natashya here? She sounds like she’s trying too hard to be Emiliana Torrini meets Bjork… This is the first of the dialogue songs, wherein Tori and Annabelle converse, and I’m already cringing at the Broadway feel. In mentally stripping out the dialogue, there was sufficient narrative without the back and forth to tell the tale and move us forward. Tori’s vocals sound clean and not overly produced; Tash sounds inexperienced, which she is and that’s fine – except I’m not buying a Tori Amos album to hear the Amos family musical. Musically, the piece is nice enough, but not very naturally flowing out of Shattering Sea for my ears.
Battle of Trees: The ‘plucking’ sound is pretty awesome in its creepiness. I almost feel like this track would have been a more natural follow upon Shattering Sea. The lyrics blend well into the piece she’s adapting (Satie, I think, but don’t quote me on it), which gives this track strong cohesion. This song is very metaphorical and weird in the Tori way; long-time fans will likely enjoy this one more than many other tracks on the album. It feels like a grower for me, personally; it’s almost too ‘think-y’ for me on first go. It has strong potential. I’m already noticing the ‘same-y’ vocals that others have noticed from Tori, which is disappointing. I think Battle could have done with a verse being delivered in Tori’s lower register to add a more ominous feel. The strings drive this one. It’s a little too long and repetitive, though…
Fearlessness: The intro feels like a slowed version of Shattering Sea’s intro; this isn’t a good thing. We’re four songs in and I already feel like I’ve heard something before? Lyrically, you may feel you’ve heard this one before, too: Your Cloud’s theme of love being a merger such that each cannot separate emerges in “that was when the blame began/what were once two forces joined in fearlessness”. The album is telling a story, undoubtedly; the trouble is, it is so metaphor-rich that it does not make for random track enjoyment. I can’t imagine listening to this track often on its own, which, considering I seldom play whole albums start to finish, is an issue. It’s dark and forlorn, but the metaphor-heavy story of the verses takes away from the simple and relatable chorus of “listen to your heart – you can hear me”.
Cactus Practice: This call and response piece is tedious… Yes, Natashya is back. She is still trying to sound older than her age. I’ve heard this one prior, and within the context of the entire body, it’s no better. We get it: there’s cactus and a practice. And Tori can barely get a word in edge-wise with this Annabelle. This could have been a 90-second interlude a la Way Down and been far more effective and successful (and less grating). The woodwinds are beautiful on this, at least. Ugh, just induct the bitch already and shut up. Resisting urge to skip ahead to next track. This is a horrible musical. This is Andrew Lloyd Weber writing drunk.
Star Whisperer: This is another I’ve previously heard. I had high hopes, being as I love stars, but thus far, it’s patchy. Lyrically, I want to love this one; it’s a powerful metaphor of lost love and feeling trapped in the endless nights where we lie sleepless and wanting. The strings are gorgeous and well-timed. But it’s Tori’s vocals that leave me a bit ambivalent. She’s locked in this small vocal range permeating the album, as if afraid to do the vocal acrobatics of old, and the dragged out delivery of verses reminds me of Crucify live circa 2005. The sudden shift at the “I hear you scream…” is jarring and unnatural… Like someone half-asleep snapping wide awake. I’m not certain I like it; the new melody is enjoyable, but the shift is so jarring, it unsettles my experience. The piano reminds me of the intro to Icicle, with shades of Bells For Her. This too may be a grower, but for now it’s “pretty good”. Again, I question the need for the narrative exchanges: the story would have told itself fine without Cactus Practice. Oh, wait! A lower register. FINALLY.
Job’s Coffin: Oh, joy; Natashya’s back. Wanna hear a New Age version of anti-oppression and feminist theory? You do? Well, Tori’s got it for you! Hear Tash sing of grids of disempowerment, chastising Tori as she waits to see “what you’re gonna do”. Lesigh. Grating as all hell. I also can’t take this track seriously with lyrics like, “since time, why do we women give ourselves away…thinking somehow, that will make him want to stay”. Is Tori’s character a Maury Povich guest-to-be? If you actually enjoy Tash’s voice, you’ll like this; if you find she’s trying too hard to sound like her mom, well, it’s almost entirely Tash, so…
Nautical Twilight: This one immediately triggers Josephine in my head. I don’t like Josephine, so you can imagine that this isn’t a positive. Lyrically…. ugh. I’m pretty sure Tori realized other tracks were too simplistic, and decided to go to town with this one, making it as obscure as possible while keeping it in English. The take-away message, echoing the previous Annabelle-Tori exchange, is “Every alchemist knows fusion and fission can unify or drive a force to split”. This one ties nicely to earlier tracks (“his shattering sea”) and may grow on me, but it’s not stellar. Shattering Sea is still the strongest track by miles.
Your Ghost: A delicate piano and string sad song of separation… Lyrically, think Putting The Damage On, without its moments of anger. In spite of a few clunky lyrics (“our primroses could survive the frost if a gentle rivulet of flame is sustained tenderly”), it’s a pretty song in its sorrow. Not sure I would spin it often, but it has strength and merit. I’m noticing the album is making me impatient; it really feels pretty same-y – and I hate going back to the term, but it works well – and it’s not the classical music elements as much as it’s Tori’s delivery and range. It’s disappointing. I’m still not excited about this album.
Edge of the Moon: I’ve heard this one before, and while several people really love it, I’m kinda meh on it. It’s yet another song about the Tori character missing this guy. We get it: you’re sad. Boys For Pele never feels this tedious and repetitive, and it’s a whole album about break-ups and destructive relationships with men. We again have a transition that doesn’t feel natural to the song structure (which is probably because of the addition of lyrics). The closing breakdown is the one part I actually love sonically; it’s got edges of Flying Dutchman to it with the strings and layering.
The Chase: I’m pretty sure Tori was on drugs when she wrote this. No, really: it’s yet another dialogue piece with Tash, wherein she and Annabelle have a throwdown on shapeshifting in an animalistic game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Tori is going to be a fish, until Tash indicates she will mow down on her as an otter; then, Tori decides to be a grain of corn (sigh!) and Tash is a hen. Tedious. I can’t describe these pieces any other way. They’re melodramatic, talk-y and clunky. They ruin the seriousness of the album’s story.
Night of Hunters: This is the track that debuts Tori’s niece, Kelsey Dobyns, who is older and much more polished than her daughter. Her voice is rich and well-suited to the musical feel of the song; it feels less hokey. This song will remind fans of the spiritual messages of the Scarlet’s Walk era, with its message of religion distorting the message of what love is, and the spiritual connection with land. It doesn’t evoke anything in me personally, but it’s a well written song and suits its classical piece. Effective and strong; this is what the album is trying to achieve in each track (with mixed success). I really wish Kelsey was the guest star all over this album; her voice is lovely.
Seven Sisters: An instrumental, Tori’s first on an album, and a rarity that will send fans scampering to remember b-sides All The Girls Hate Her and Over It. This is a piano and woodwind duet, a dance of the two instruments. Gorgeous.
Carry: I take strong issue with repetition, which is likely why I dissent from many fans in not liking this one. Tori, come the fuck on: Gold Dust, Toast and Our New Year are all album closers with the exact same message of carrying someone lost with you in your heart. Stop recycling! This track even sounds like Gold Dust in places! I can’t deal with this. It should be an enjoyable song, because the lyrics are delicate and emotional, but all I can think is, “Been there, done that perfectly, so why try and top it?” It kills the album and leaves it on a bad note in closing for me.
This album isn’t restoring my love and faith in Tori Amos’ work. While there are strong tracks, much of the material is repetitive and generic lyrically – or so obscure as to be pretentious or intentionally confusing for the sake of it. The album – dialogue songs aside – is cohesive, but almost too cohesive. This project could have been fifty minutes long and tighter in feel, while still telling the same story. I’m also irritated at the lack of deep exploration of the lost man (even through Tori’s eyes, she tells us little of him); the story feels shallow without this exploration (and I don’t feel the metaphor of Battle of Trees cuts it in this area).
The songs with Annabelle/Natashya are horrid. They’re cheesy in feel, and this is coming from a self-proclaimed Broadway slut. Natashya needs to grow into her voice, instead of trying to force her voice to be older than it is. It feels as if she is trying to be other artists she’s heard and admires, instead of being unique. Kelsey Dobyns is gorgeous; I’d be happy to have her perform on future albums. I don’t feel the device of Annabelle adds anything to the story; it detracts, really, and I foresee an iTunes playlist where I scratch all four tracks and pretend they don’t exist.
Highlights of the album: Shattering Sea (still my favourite of the album); Seven Sisters; Star Whisperer; Night of Hunters.
Lowlights: Cactus Practice; The Chase; Job’s Coffin; Snowblind; Carry (sorry, but it’s true)
Overall Album Grade: B-