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Low Culture

Low Culture 6: Tori Amos And The Pretty Good Career
Matthew Barton , May 21st, 2020 08:09

Matthew Barton has some Really Deep Thoughts on the extravagantly talented Tori Amos… namely, why hasn't she always got the due she deserves?

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It's March 1994. Tori Amos, Björk, and Polly Harvey have assembled, on the behest of Q, at a photo studio in Islington for a joint interview. Amos is fresh off a UK No 1 with her second LP Under The Pink and is on the eve of a mammoth solo world tour, Björk is beginning to form ideas for her second album having sold half a million copies of Debut, and Harvey has not long put out the raw, feverish 4-Track Demos having disbanded the original trio that brought acclaim on two records called Dry and Rid Of Me. Björk and Harvey performed a curious version of The Rolling Stones' '(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction' together at the BRIT Awards a couple of weeks ago, where Björk won Best International Newcomer. In short, they gave, as the Q article proclaims, "spooky, left-field major label weirdness back its good name". Three beacons in the male-dominated post-grunge landscape of the early 90s.

In the fan communities of these artists, this meeting of three of modern pop's most inventive, unique, innovative songwriters has attained an almost mystical significance. Tori? And Björk? And PJ? In the same room?! It's the meeting itself that sparks interest – photos from the session are routinely posted and shared, nostalgically, lovingly, on social media – but the resultant article, selected as the monthly's May cover, is a fascinating read itself all these years later. The three artists, in the face of some dubious questioning, speak eloquently about sexism, the perils of the music business, and the nature of performance; it is laid out as a simple Q&A format but is customarily let down by its toe-curling accompanying headline, emblazoned in immortal idiocy on the cover: "HIPS. LIPS. TITS. POWER." A reference to a Silverfish track or not - was this really 1994? Surely the irony cannot be lost when Amos herself puts sexist scribes straight in the very article itself: "It's funny for women because journalists pit women against each other. If you think about Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton they were all much more similar to each other than we are. We have tits. We have three holes. That's what we have in common. We don't even play the same instruments. It really disappoints me when some sort of competition has to be manufactured for their little minds and fantasies."

So let me state immediately that this is not a comparison piece. In the Q article, Amos says: "There is room for everybody on the planet to be creative and conscious if you are your own person. If you're trying to be like somebody else, then there isn't. We see things from different points of view and that affects people in different ways and I think that should be encouraged." And let that be (almost) the last word on that.

But what I do want to look at is how and why, more than twenty-five years later, for artists I consider rather different in style but equal in significance, Amos' career has diverged somewhat from that of her peers. On that day in March 1994, they were all riding a kind of alt-pop wave. Each had enjoyed a level of success, critical and commercial, both in the alternative press and the mainstream media and seemed on the cusp of something quite exciting: here were three artists you knew were pretty special, and that this was a moment in time worth recording.

But, in many ways, Tori Amos doesn't seem to be quite part of the same conversation anymore. PJ Harvey has gone on to attain a kind of mythic rock star status; her last album, recorded as part of an art exhibition at Somerset House, was accompanied by precisely zero interviews - because, presumably after the Mercury-winning Let England Shake, she didn't want to and now simply doesn't need to. Björk records continue to be "events"; I saw her play at the O2 in November with a flute septet and an Icelandic choir – her tours are futuristic, big-production residencies, and she has the pick of collaborators. Tori Amos… still makes music, right?

Right! And that's my point. What has prevented her from being as venerated as some of her contemporaries? Why the absence of the same kind of critical attention, appraisal, keen ear? Why are new Tori Amos records not received in the same way? Make no mistake, Amos still has a sizeable and loyal following: she consistently sells out theatre tours, and in the age of social media and streaming she has strong video views and "monthly listener" figures. She even has a new book, part-memoir, part-socio-political treatise Resistance, publishing this month with Hodder & Stoughton. So why do I feel that there's some kind of due missing?

This is a Low Culture long read – and it's as long a read as some of Amos' mid-period records are listens. But if you want the crux of my argument, here it is: Tori Amos, without need for comparison, is the equal of, say, PJ Harvey and Björk and whoever else we may see as her closest contemporaries, and the reason that her body of work as a whole hasn't quite had the appraisal it deserves is down to a complex range of factors that include the sexism of the rock press, the perils of an "image" preceding your art, the way the piano is not revered as a rock instrument in the same way as the guitar, and a change in direction that contrasted sharply with that of her peers. If indeed anything 'went wrong' on her end, I wager that it went wrong somewhere around 2002-04. (Author disclaimer: I believe 2002's Scarlet's Walk is possibly Amos' greatest artistic achievement – so how can it have 'gone wrong' at a point of merit? Well, more on that later…)

But first we need to unpick the Tori Amos of the 90s. Following an unsuccessful stint as the frontwoman/songwriter of the LA hair metal outfit Y Kant Tori Read in the late Eighties (think Heart-esque power ballads cross-pollinated with Pat Benatar), Atlantic Records selected England as the natural site for Amos' re-emergence, solo, as a slightly oddball piano-playing singer-songwriter. She was a bit different, an "acquired taste" perhaps – maybe the Brits will get it? Well, it was a gamble that paid off. Amos built a steady following with intense performances in tiny theatres during the latter months of 1991 and Little Earthquakes, now justifiably regarded as a modern classic, broke in the UK first. She made memorable appearances on British chat shows and popped up semi-regularly on Top Of The Pops.

She went on, during 1992, to conquer alternative rock radio in America and hit a palpable nerve with her intriguing style that merged delicacy of touch with electrifying power, all on an acoustic piano. As much as maintaining a presence on the fringes of the British pop charts, Amos became an alternative icon in America; she hung out with Trent Reznor and Michael Stipe and often utilised the space given to her in the b-sides of singles to reimagine classics of the rock firmament, both past and present (Courtney Love later recounted how she and Kurt Cobain would slow dance to Amos' version of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit').

So far, so successful, right?

It's inaccurate to say that Amos has been completely denied her share of acclaim – there are various rave notices for all of her 90s albums, and Rhino saw fit to release deluxe legacy editions of her first three records in the mid-2010s – but I've always detected a note of grudging acceptance in critical responses to her work, a somewhat condescending and faintly misogynistic tone, from writers of all genders. Take the two-star indictment of Boys For Pele included in Rolling Stone in 1996: "As she trills away in a soprano voice that's 40 percent breath, it's hard to get past the fact that Amos has thanked 'the faeries' on all her albums." What does that even mean?

This kind of reductive focus on the things critics ridiculed her for – a perceived feyness, the frank expression of intimate emotions – dogged her through the 90s and, I believe, have affected her standing in the "pantheon", if such a thing may exist. Amos herself admitted to "playing kooky for the Brits", and maybe it's true that she fed into this image of herself a little. Her eccentric persona, at times, preceded her. It's unthinkable now that a daytime TV show would feature an artist like Amos and a song as idiosyncratic as 'Caught A Lite Sneeze', but ITV's This Morning did just that in 1996 – and the set designers elected to decorate her station of piano and harpsichord with lit candles, Amos like a mystical seer in a gothic church, under the garish lights of a riverside TV studio with Richard and Judy looking on.

The perception in the press was that Tori Amos was in cloud cuckoo land, a bit wispy, tripping on her own whimsical fancies. John Lydon snoringly proclaimed her "Torrid Aimless" and a pale imitation of Kate Bush at the Q Awards in 2001, and any mention of her music was often trailed by tiresome tropes about the fiery redhead singing bloodletting songs at a piano, open-legged, shrieking. (Check out the Oil Spill parody, many years beyond the 90s, in an episode of Bob's Burgers.) She sang about "women's issues", or as the Q article states, "estrogen-marinated musings" in an esoteric, emotive style. Subtext: inconsequential? One to avoid?

Well, by not going there, fundamentally you're missing out on a rather magnificent catalogue. The implication that these (I'm about to say it again) "estrogen-marinated musings" are lesser, a point on a spectrum of indifference somewhere between curiosity and ridicule, is maybe the larger backdrop to why Tori Amos hasn't quite achieved that kind of untouchable status as Harvey and Björk, where they are not just revered as legends in the making but their new work consistently elicits an active response. Can you imagine a new Tori Amos album being considered on those best-of-year lists? And can you imagine the same of a new record by Harvey or Björk? Probably you can. Well, you definitely can because they still do. Later, I will tackle Amos' largely overlooked post-2000 output head-on, but spoiler alert: it's really not all about the music.

Which is utterly bizarre, because the very reason Amos connected with an audience in the first place was because of the power of the music. In the early 90s, no one was making music like her. She wrote and sang in a naked, compellingly honest way; there was an unparalleled intimacy and frankness to her writing and playing, an internal monologue playing out, direct to the listener – but crucially with a master songwriter's craft. She was never didactic or heavy-handed; she imbued the deep themes of her work with verve, melodic invention, and ingenuity. Little Earthquakes chimed with listeners in several ways; it was a masterstroke to emerge with 'Silent All These Years', with its beautiful Nick DeCaro string arrangement like an echo of Rickie Lee Jones' 'On Saturday Afternoons In 1963'. In this song, Amos set out her stall: "Sometimes I hear my voice, I hear my voice, I hear my voice and it's been – here, silent all these years." How simple yet powerful is that? Amos gave a voice to the repressed, she gave courage to listeners with her songs detailing experiences of childhood trauma ('Precious Things'), familial tension ('Mother'), and sexual assault ('Me And A Gun'). You knew instinctively that here was someone who understood what it was to be disenfranchised, powerless, a little out of place; ultimately, her music showed you, as listener, that you have what you need within you and that, really, you're not alone. It's little surprise she connected so strongly with audiences, including the gay community.

It's to her credit that she was brave enough to be so open, when she must have anticipated some of the fallout. But that was her modus operandi – you got the sense that Amos was making this music because she simply had to.

It wouldn't be a surprise to me if it was the honesty and openness with which Amos made her mark that has been off-putting to many critics down the line. "Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon – how's that thought for you?" is the kind of lyric, drenched in sardonic humour, that to some would be uncomfortably direct. But really there's no excuse in allowing any personal distaste to overshadow the frequent excellence of her music: of her writing, of the oblique imagery in her lyrics, of her exquisite way with a melody, of the way she manipulated her classical training to foster arrangements that somehow defied categorisation.

She professed a love for Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors – she sounded like all and none of them. She used the piano with the intensity of a guitar, and in so doing, transformed its role in modern pop music. She bent it to her will, making it dirty or sweet or scary or fun, sometimes in the same song. There really wasn't a piano player like her before in rock; you can hear shades of Laura Nyro in her dynamics or Elton John in her melodic sensibility, but she possessed a piano style completely fresh and striking. Listen to the rollicking workout of the bass notes that begin 'In The Springtime Of His Voodoo', or the way 'Alamo' transforms from a fluttery prologue, like an insect flapping its wings about the place, into a lilting lament.

And her voice? You know, the soprano trill that's 40 percent breath? She used it to its fullest; she could croon or wail, shout or purr, sing a song with understated grace or with powerful abandon. Listen to the vocal in the verses of 'Girl' – sad, soft, controlled – and contrast it with the explosive range of notes in the bridge of 'Little Earthquakes'. Amos had a lot of tools at her disposal and she deployed them all with dexterity.

Much of the modern-day criticism centres on how the lyrics and themes of Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink struck such a chord. So would she still have had the same impact without the nature of her lyrics?

In short, yes. Because her melodies entice with their intricacy and range and the variety in her music is boundless. There are endless examples: how 'Yes, Anastasia' makes infinite use of dynamics over the course of its nine minutes until it builds to an opulent classical crescendo; how the haunting treated piano in 'Bells For Her' evokes an atmosphere of rare intimacy; how one of her most enduring hits, 'Cornflake Girl', cloaks its reggae-infused rhythm in alt-pop garb; how the skewed recitals of 'Blood Roses' (just listen to how fast her fingers run up and down on the harpsichord) and 'Professional Widow' inject further baroque magnificence into her sound, a kind of Tudor-punk energy; how the thread of southern gospel music runs through Boys For Pele like the Mississippi.

She could change tempo and rhythm not just with ease but with imagination, as on 'Hotel' or 'Pretty Good Year' or, later, 'Witness', and she knew exactly the kind of layers to add at the right moments in service to the song: spooky trip hop, spacey electronica, quasi-R&B rhythms, elegant jazz chords. Listen to a weird little curio like 'Bug A Martini', with its lounge percussion and a delicious, liquid Rhodes solo like a pared-down Steely Dan, or to 'Purple People', with its blizzard-at-the-end-of-the-world European jazz café feel.

Each new album built on the creativity and experimentation of the last. Under The Pink is a fine example of an artist, knowing for the first time that the world was listening, going deeper: the oft-repeated tale is that Atlantic initially wanted to replace the pianos of Little Earthquakes with guitars. On its follow-up, Amos explores the bell-like beauty of her instrument in a profound way; its closing four-song suite, comprising the discordant/delicate dynamic of 'Icicle', the fragility of 'Cloud On My Tongue', the rocking bass riffs of 'Space Dog', and the resplendent extravagance of 'Yes, Anastasia' is riveting.

Boys For Pele further explored rhythms and textures, and if I had to select one Amos record to convince someone of her genius, this would probably be the one. It has everything. Musically, Amos riffs on hymns, gospel music, baroque pop, tender ballads, and R&B; at its core, Pele exists, poised like the volcano of its title to blow at any moment, on the tension between a sense of opulent experimentation that goes wildly outside the lines and a commitment to superb, mature songwriting. It's where you get a breakup song par excellence like 'Putting The Damage On' and a plea of stark yearning like the Prince-influenced 'Hey Jupiter' ("No one's picking up the phone", she sings, as the barely-there piano echoes the unanswered ring) alongside 'Talula', the sweet spot where her harpsichord-driven fury and homespun southern influences collide, or 'In The Springtime Of His Voodoo', a bizarre old-time R&B scat that morphs into what you may imagine a hallucinogenic Tudor tea dance to sound like. The whole thing is musically invigorating, wide-reaching, inventive, and seemingly effortless.

1998's From The Choirgirl Hotel expands on the promise of its predecessor but now in a rich, full-band setting; the textures and tones are deeper and lusher still. The production is incredible; it's an album of thunderous, mellifluous piano rock with weird accents, whether pulsating techno ('Raspberry Swirl'), punk swagger ('She's Your Cocaine'), and, in what I have begun to feel is the album's centrepiece, 'Iieee', a bewitching fusion of Morricone guitar, trip-hop beat, and synth textures over a Native American-inspired chant. Its follow-up To Venus And Back (1999) is like its proggy cousin – the electronics a bit more pronounced, the production a bit more experimental, the writing too: 'Juarez', 'Datura', 'Suede'… these are songs based more on texture and mood than any debt to traditional songwriting, unlike the more standard fare of '1000 Oceans'.

Let's not forget at this moment that, for every positive review of these pa