The career of Tori Amos is one to behold with a sense of wonder, no matter what you think of her music.
Spending her youth playing piano in gay bars with her minister father’s blessing, Amos initially was presented to the mainstream scene as a teased-hair rocker with a piano in the extremely short-lived and unsuccessful band, Y Kant Tori Read. Having fallen firmly on her face in embarrassment for the crime of listening to industry gurus, she retreated to her piano, penning what would be the highly confessional and raw album, Little Earthquakes. Delving deep into her personal conflicts with religion and societal expectations, never mind the harrowing a cappella recounting of her rape in “Me And A Gun”, the album went on to hit double platinum in the US, earning critical accolades that endure to this day (the album is her only entry in 1001 Albums To Hear Before You Die).
Thus began a career marked by a refusal to conform to the dichotomy of Virgin and Magdalene female celebrities are thrust into. Instead, Amos worked to “marry the Marys”, unabashedly sexual as a being but also vulnerable and loving. Ever exploring creative expression, the nineties saw Tori breastfeed a pig in the artwork of her album Boys For Pele, collaborate with Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, and set pianos on fire. Her belief in faeries would nestle into interviews alongside discussions of her founding of RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), and up yours if you had a problem with her contention that it could very well have been a girl born in Bethlehem.
But Amos also remained achingly honest and raw in her compositions, revealing her insecurities, anger, heartbreak and confusion through her work. Cryptic references teased apart to reveal a woman struggling to assemble at times disparate identities and emotions. Fans found in her a confidante, a musical diary of their own fears and longing.
I found her in 1998, drawn to the video for “Spark”. The lead single for From The Choirgirl Hotel, it was a dark and haunting song of her miscarriage. For many fans, self included, the refrain “You say you don’t want it, this circus we’re in/But you don’t, don’t really mean it” took on another meaning. If her previous albums were driven primarily by the keys, this one was the first where she invited the other instruments to the party and challenged them to keep up.
Thus began the first wave of exodus in the Tori Amos fandom, critical to understanding the high stakes for her newest release, Unrepentant Geraldines.
There are those fans of any artist who want more of the same. Change is frowned upon, particularly when it drifts away from what they envision an artist’s role in the music industry. Between the electronic/adult contemporary drift of 1999’s To Venus And Back and the mellow Americana of 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk (one of her best, in my opinion), a fracturing began between the old guard and new. It wasn’t a huge fall off, by any means: the core honesty and sucker punch lyrics remained in Amos’ piano. But there were those who wondered at the proliferation of concept albums in the mix. Whereas her early albums fell organically into loose themes, the 2000s were a time of specific narrative devices and concepts. Take 2007’s (underrated) American Doll Posse: adorning the cover are five women, including the character of Tori.
An omen, perhaps, of the internal struggle between Amos and her Muse, but also within herself.
While critical reception for 2009’s Abnormally Attracted To Sin — an album without concept, yet strangely confessional and closed off all at once — was generally favourable, many fans found the effort lacking and confusing. Amos, too, struggled with her creativity, veering off into series of projects that in many ways seem an effort to force the music out. Ideas that read well on paper, such as the orchestral reworking of her catalogue on Gold Dust, fell flat in the execution.
The second exodus loomed large, as even the more forgiving and open to change in her faithful struggled to reconcile the albums of old with the new. And whereas the original exodus was survivable in the industry — plenty of younger men and women were only discovering her in the mid-late 2000s — the loss of the mainstays and the new blood could prove disastrous.
Which is where we find ourselves now, as she releases Unrepentant Geraldines, her first album of original material not otherwise tied to some source material (Night Of Hunters; Gold Dust) or distinct purpose (Midwinter Graces; musical The Light Princess) since 2009. Inspired by visual artists and described as songs held close to Amos’ chest, the album is presented as a return to her early sound and its melding of pop and classical elements. The question is: is it enough to bring the old guard and new back into the fold?
In brief: not quite.
Vocally, Amos sounds spectacular. Her voice is as prized as her piano virtuosity and sounds as crisp and beautiful as early gems like “Bells For Her”. The piano, too, is given more of a starring role again, as compared to recent outings where it seemed strangely buried in the mix. There’s certainly a concerted effort to recapture earlier stylistic choices; I’m particularly reminded of 1994’s Under The Pink, given the soft polish of the compositions.
There is a confessional level here on Unrepentant Geraldines that has been lacking in the last decade, an opening of the curtains and an eye peering through. On “16 Shades Of Blue”, Amos delves into what it is to be a woman in a society where you are either too old or too young, where motherhood renders you a liability, and your entire generation is defined by poorly written fanfiction turned publication where abuse is billed as sexy. “Wild Way” is a bittersweet love song to the endurance of her marriage, a conflicted piece where Amos struggles to reconcile personal emotional doubt and depression with the strength her husband provides.
Tongue in cheek, we also find her taking on notions of government surveillance and the blurring of the private and public in “Giant’s Rolling Pin”, a standout on the album if only for a level of smirking knowing best captured in the b-sides of the Pele era. Indeed, with all of the tales of isolation and strained love lurking on this album (“Selkie”; “Invisible Boy”; “Wedding Day”), it seems a spiritual sibling to both Pele and Pink.
This should sound like heaven to fans of Amos, and for many, it is being hailed as her best in years. Unfortunately, for me, it falls shy of the mark.
One of the biggest complaints that I and many have with Amos is her insistence on producing her own material. The results are often too smooth, leaving a wanting for the quirks and “live off the floor” feel of her earlier works. While there are improvements here, likely brought about by a lesser reliance on synthetic guitars and her recent classically-rooted releases, there is still a feeling of “sameness” that permeates the album.
This sameness also drifts into the songwriting itself, which is the album’s biggest disappointment. “Oysters” and the aforementioned “Selkie” sound so similar in structure and even delivery choices that it is hard to define what makes each song unique to her catalogue, lyrics aside. “Oysters” is beautiful, but so was “Seaside” in 2003 — a track that sounds too close for my comfort. There’s a part of me that wonders at when the artist took repeated fan pleas to “make another Pink” so literally as to write variations on a sound. And while they’re deftly played songs with poignant lyrics, very few of them grab the attention in the way that the entirety of, say, Little Earthquakes does; each of its songs has a distinct personality, but Geraldines can’t make that claim.
The persistence of including daughter Natashya Hawley on her albums has also become irksome at best. Whereas Amos’ niece Kelsey Dobyns (featured on 2012’s Night Of Hunters) has the experience and training that can hold its own against her vocal power, Hawley is simply too green. Indeed, she continues here to emulate other singers more than provide her own voice: as one fan astutely remarked, she “Mariah Careys” their duet, “Promise”. The result is a maudlin track best kept between mother and daughter, or perhaps as a b-side.
Really, this remains the crux of Tori’s troubles: within her albums often lies a stellar one. She simply does not understand how to edit her own works down to sonic armour with nary a chink. Within its 14 songs, Unrepentant Geraldines houses a 9 or 10 track album that could very well outshine much of her catalogue of late. There is also a feeling of self-censorship, an arms length nature that leaves one wistful for the woman who spoke so freely about her world — our world. Perhaps that derives from being a mother, from the struggle to balance creative abandon with the watchful eye of a teenage girl. This distance and the dead weight — along with the lack of any A+ songs on par with “Caught A Lite Sneeze” or even 2009’s “Curtain Call” — ultimately renders the album shy of satisfying.
Is Tori Amos done? Hardly. There are many who will roll their eyes and find me hypercritical. There are several strong songs to keep your ears and heart in good company. But is it enough for me to pause at the door and head back inside after seven years of general disappointment? I don’t think it is.
But I will keep the light on, dear Mother, should you continue on this right path and remember where your best art came from.
Highlights: “16 Shades Of Blue”; “Giant’s Rolling Pin”; “Oysters”; “Weatherman”
Final Grade: B-