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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 patently brilliant albums ("laced with brass filigrees and melodic tendrils, cut with shadows and grit"), Amos would also get a notice decrying her "phony quirkiness" or "dull piano/voice concept" (the belittling of the piano is a recurring motif). That "there's no way around the latent feminism." You don't have to look far to find a critic dismissing her work as "hippie-dippie New Age mumbo-jumbo".

The focus on Amos, and of many women, as "confessional singer-songwriters" dumbs down the wide reach of their subject matter. I've always found "confessional" to carry more than a hint of condescension – the idea of a sort of therapy session that has no business with art, the verbal counterpart to an adolescent diary. It says nothing of the craft and skill of the artist nor the depth of the music, and indeed seems designed to turn our attentions away from it.

If we want to talk about the "personal" nature of her writing, it's better to say that Amos writes eloquently about the nature of human relationships, of interactions between men and women and their surroundings. Under The Pink, a kind of thematic forerunner of Fiona Apple's Fetch The Bolt Cutters, analyses betrayal, insecurity, and friendship between women; much of Boys For Pele centres around the realisation that it isn't external validation, whether from a lover or otherwise, that is important to your own sense of self. 'Spark' meanwhile, is a reeling, heart-breaking account of the feelings of insecurity and self-doubt following a miscarriage ("she's convinced she could hold back a glacier, but she couldn't keep baby alive".) Empathetic songs like 'Northern Lad', '1000 Oceans', and later 'Invisible Boy' are compassionate accounts of relationships with male figures in life; most enduring of all, of course, is the father-daughter relationship explored so beautifully in 'Winter'. That's the kind of song that takes on different meanings at different ages, a kind of 'Landslide'.

Amos takes in subjects as diverse as female genocide at the Mexican border ('Juarez'), the American porn industry ('Amber Waves'), Native American plight ('Tombigbee'), and political malfeasance ('Angels') as means to explore human foibles, failings, follies. The macro and the micro are at work in her songs constantly.

It's also worth stating for the record that Amos, the daughter of a Methodist preacher, writes about the intersection of religion, sexuality, and the patriarchy in a seriously compelling way, imbuing her takes with humour and subversive glee. "Got a piece tied up in the back seat", she sings with joyous gender-reversing sexual candour and wit on 'In The Springtime Of His Voodoo', "Honey, we're recovering Christians". And what about the very refrain of 'God': "God, sometimes you just don't come through / do you need a woman to look after you?" In the space of a couple of lines, she can be equally sarcastic, funny, and blind-siding. She packs a punch but doesn't need to get the boxing gloves on to do it.

Her lyrics contain a plethora of intriguing, strange, sometimes surrealist images. Seeming non-sequiturs like "tuna, rubber, a little blubber in my igloo" attracted a bit of stick, but I always found that improvised line in particular a mood-setter, reminding me a little of Laura Nyro's "I am soft and silly and my name is Lilianaloo". Amos employs words for tone and texture as much as anything, and she has a wicked way with imagery. "Like Judy Garland taking Buddha by the hand", goes the jaunty 'Happy Phantom', like the Ahlberg Funnybones in musical form; in 'Father Lucifer' she wonders, "does Joe bring flowers to Marilyn's grave?" – a line of devastating humanity in the shape of a perfectly-selected pop culture reference; "Greg he writes letters and burns his CDs / they say you were something in those formative years" is a window into 90s fandom in 'Pretty Good Year' swiftly followed by a quick-cutting scythe of a riposte; and how about this for a perfect encapsulation of the feeling of being a high-school teenager in 70s America – "stickers licked on lunchboxes, worshiping David Cassidy". Amos is adept at bringing in the pop culture references for maximum impact.

And not enough is said about her sense of humour. "Give me religion and a lobotomy" is a casual line thrown into the simple gospel beauty of 'Beulah Land'; 'Professional Widow' ends in a blaze of wry humour as she yells, 'give me peace, love, and a hard cock'. In the music, too, there are amusing morsels: there's the little trump of organ that ends 'Hotel', and the flourish of classical pomp in the piano lines of 'Yes, Anastasia'; the weird Waitsian vaudeville of 'Mr. Zebra' is a delight, with its jaunty Black Dyke Mills Band accompaniment to its cartoonish, nightmarish nursery rhyme lyric replete with characters like Ratatouille Strychnine and Mrs. Crocodile.

OK. So the music's great. The lyrics are great. Tori's pretty great! So..?

Now as I said before, I would wager that 2002's Scarlet's Walk is up there with Amos' greatest achievements. If Boys For Pele continues to astonish with its unbridled intensity and musical invention, Scarlet's Walk is an album of "classic songwriting" without peer. You won't find the rhythmic shifts and propulsive energy of previous records, nor the sonic experimentation. Instead, on this 18-song road trip epic pieced together in the wake of post-9/11 America, Amos shifts focus and delivers songs in a classic verse/chorus format with tight arrangements (check out the delicious rhythm section of Jon Evans on bass and Matt Chamberlain on drums) and vintage keyboards. Scarlet's Walk radiates with the sound of warm Wurlitzers and Rhodes, of Rumours-style harmonies and melodies, of gentle beauty.

And, in possibly a death knell to this part of her career, it was the first of her albums to get picked up on adult contemporary radio. An album like Scarlet's Walk is one reason why I distrust such categorisation and the labels it imprints, tattoo-like, on records: when you think "adult contemporary", don't you think boring, bland, beige? Vanilla for the masses? The energy sucked away and the kinks ironed out? Such a preconception would miss the poetic intensity of the album's lyrics, its cohesion of vision, and foremost its exquisite writing. Could 'Gold Dust' be the ultimate Tori Amos ballad, with its strings, piano, soaring vocals and elegant lyric of longing and regret? There's 'Carbon', with its cascading piano lines and truncated lyrical style, the apocalyptic dreamscape of 'I Can't See New York', and 'Pancake', where the Wurlitzer is re-situated as an instrument of bubbling fury. And what can we say about 'A Sorta Fairytale', otherwise known as five-and-a-half minutes of pop perfection. The creative rhythm section allows Amos' uncharacteristically simple piano chords to fill in the gaps; her husband Mark Hawley (aka Mac Aladdin)'s guitar work complements rather than intrudes as it went on to do on later records, and her swirling backing vocals all converge to evoke the roof-down, hair-blowing-in-the-wind drive down the West Coast 101 detailed in the song.

But it's a double-edged sword. Scarlet's Walk was a commercial success and indeed was received reasonably warmly at the time, but it was the beginning of a shift in both Amos' work and indeed the perception of it: her albums were soon to become couched, every time, in increasingly befuddling concepts, what was once special (Pele and Scarlet being the only two "epics" of her catalogue up to this point) then became the norm, and the refocus in sound alienated pockets of her audience. It's not like Scarlet's Walk is a complete volte-face, and it shares a fair amount of DNA with her previous work - but Pele and Choirgirl it is not.

At this point, let me just bring in Polly Harvey and Björk another time for context. It's now 2004. Ten years have passed since the Q interview and, by now, all three artists have got some pretty exceptional catalogues to their name. PJ Harvey is putting out Uh Huh Her, a rough-hewn, messy affair, unpolished and raw. She has won the Mercury Music Prize but has resolutely gone against the grain to make a lo-fi, "difficult" follow-up. Björk, for her part, is putting out Medulla, an experimental, beautiful, bizarre effort built solely around the human voice.

Tori Amos is in Cornwall making The Beekeeper, an album that follows in February 2005, preceded by a pretty but syrupy lead single, 'Sleeps With Butterflies', that makes Scarlet's Walk sound like the Pixies. It arrives accompanied by a confusing press release detailing a chaotic concept based around hexagons, gardens, the Gnostic Gospels, and by a cover that looked like an escapee from the checkout rack at a garden centre. Amos is historically not one to retrospectively pick apart her albums, but she later admitted that the album was "not [her] favourite" as it was mostly "tracked live" and was not "polished" enough; but that's not the reason why The Beekeeper doesn't quite work. It was the bizarre combination of the saccharine and the leftfield that was head-scratching, not to mention a sleepy accompanying tour that presented needlessly elongated versions of catalogue gems (although, being a Nico obsessive, there is a part of me that is partial to the 12-minute Xanax organ dirges of 'The Beekeeper'). So where Harvey and Björk were perceived to be making continually experimental, fresh work, The Beekeeper was promoted as soft-focus, genteel, and, yes, "adult contemporary".

The Beekeeper is really a microcosm of Amos' latter-day career which has become a kind of hazy view of her career as a whole; its reputation nowadays precedes it which of course means that it either gets unjustly ignored or its merits are clouded. If an artist stops appearing outwardly experimental, boundary-pushing, they become almost written off. But that way, you're missing out on beauties like 'Parasol', with its elegant major/minor seesaw of a melody, the crystalline beauty of 'Original Sinsuality' (pun notwithstanding), the utterly bizarre 'Witness', where Amos really does go full-on proggy gospel/soul/R&B accompanied by London's Community Gospel Choir, and the gossamer-light 'Martha's Foolish Ginger', perhaps possessor of one of the most beautiful, clear vocals of her career.

But it does seem that by this point, two "adult contemporary" albums in, the damage critically was done. If works as ferociously brilliant as Boys For Pele and From The Choirgirl Hotel weren't taken as seriously as they should have been, what chance did The Beekeeper have? 2007's American Doll Posse is, for me, the saddest missed opportunity of the Amos canon and possibly her most misunderstood record. If you put yourself in Amos' shoes, you've just come off the back of an ill-received album, people don't like that you're singing about driving your Saab to Ireland, and your fans are wondering what on earth is going on. What do you do? You put the songs that waft in like gentle summer breezes back in their hexagonal gardens, you lock the greenhouse door, and you emerge, Bible in hand, blood trickling down your leg, Stepford Wife stare, as one of five new alter-egos. You have to admire her chutzpah. Dressing up in character and creating MySpace-era backstories for each, Amos delivered a bonkers, frivolous 70s-aping pop/rock hybrid record that – sense the irony – is heavy on electric guitar.

American Doll Posse is the sound of an artist trying, any which way, to get out of a rut. It's a chicken and egg scenario: did the songs come once Amos got into character as Santa, Pip, Isabel, Clyde, and, well, Tori, or did she invent the characters because the sound of the album was so diverse and, if truth be told, lacking in cohesion and direction? Amos talked up the characters as being inspired by the tradition of Greek archetypes, as modern-day tips of the hat to the Bowie personas of the 70s, and I always found it interesting that she posited "Tori", in garish orange Cheeto wig, as a "character", saying something of both the lure and the lack of freedom in having an "image". There were lots of potentially interesting discussions to be had – about identity, stereotyping, gender roles, societal treatment of women over 40 - but again, the record failed to make much of an impact with critics or indeed listeners and these conversation never really got off the ground.

It's a shame, because the album boasts an energy and an enthusiasm that had been missing from her work for a while; lead single 'Big Wheel', with its wonky honky-tonk flavour and percussive M-I-L-F breakdown, was a peculiar trailer, and where else would you get something as punky if a little knowingly juvenile as 'Teenage Hustling' on a Tori Amos record? There are moments of sheer beauty, like the Doors-esque 'Father's Son' and melancholy 'Beauty Of Speed' amid less successful experiments like the cod-Zeppelin 'You Can Bring Your Dog'. Amos does a good glam-ballad impression on 'Digital Ghost' and goes full-scale McCartney on 'Girl Disappearing' and 'Mr. Bad Man.' The album also prompted one of her best live tours, a show full of theatre and intrigue; she memorably performed an intense one-off live band version of 'Me And A Gun' at a Chicago show in November 2007, in character as Pip, with knife and gun as props. If it took dressing up as different characters, taking on imagined identities, to tap into a raw kind of energy again, so be it. At its best, American Doll Posse is a riot of fun, spunk, and imagination, at its worst – like many a kaleidoscopic double album before it – sprawling, messy, and unfocused.

And there's the rub with post-Millennium Amos. Where her prior albums were purposeful, bold and clear in direction, the post-Scarlet's Walk albums sometimes found themselves lost in a maze of indecision. Where Amos made her mark with her frankness and openness, her new records were couched in complex concepts that, if anything, detracted from the music. That is absolutely her right, and who can blame her? By this point, Amos and her producer husband Hawley had a young daughter and if she thought, 'hang on a minute, I don't want to be quite so (outwardly) open anymore', you can hardly begrudge her.

But there was a sneaking suspicion that a slow kind of rot was setting in; past the era of two-part CD singles, Amos threw all of her material onto bursting 80-minute discs – would more judicious editing have done something to enhance the reputation of a record like The Beekeeper? Where the production of albums like Choirgirl and her wonderfully creative covers LP Strange Little Girls was rich and textured, her newer records sounded muffled, dry, comparatively lifeless. (Delectable rockers like 'Body And Soul' and 'Code Red', from Posse, are just begging to pop that little bit more.) She was recording her albums every other summer at home in Cornwall, with the same team and the same musicians. Under The Pink had taken on some of the energy and surroundings of the hacienda in Taos where it was made; Boys For Pele the acoustics and atmosphere of the Irish church and damp Georgian house of its conception; all of these records with the different musicians weaving in and out. Amos, even while still on a major label (Sony since 2002), was now something of a cottage industry working out of Martian Engineering in the rural South-West. When does a cottage industry become a prison?

It's hard not to read Amos' blog, in character as Clyde (ostensibly about an imaginary art exhibition), in May 2007 as anything other than a stung reaction to American Doll Posse's muted response: "What I didn't count on in a million years was this sense of failure that I would have to contend with after putting so much time and love into this visual art presentation… The opening has left me tired and feeling empty… What bothers me, when I can quiet my racing thoughts for half a second, is the way some of these artists and their works have been misunderstood. When I read all the critiques, I am left feeling as if I have failed some of these women artists. 'Maybe just maybe', I think to myself, 'if I had helped to present them in a different sequence, maybe then the literal mind would have been more open to the abstract.'"

I look back on American Doll Posse as Amos putting everything she had, at that moment in time, into making a record that was the opposite of what The Beekeeper stood for. Can you imagine 'Fat Slut' on The Beekeeper? And when it didn't do what she thought, hoped, wanted it to do, where can you go?

If anyone needs to listen to the sound of a balloon bursting, take a listen to Amos' output of 2009. Abnormally Attracted To Sin approaches some of the production smarts of Choirgirl – "audio mescaline," she said – but with little of the inspiration. The production is just gloss over what really is a sad, empty album: the music is vacant, bare, depressed. 'Strong Black Vine' is like 'Kashmir' on Quaaludes, and 'Maybe California' details the blunt emotions of a mother poised to jump off a cliff. There are moments of effortless beauty in common with her strongest work ('Starling', 'Fast Horse') but perhaps most telling of all is closer 'Lady In Blue', where the atmospheric Badalamenti-inspired arrangement fades out as Amos sings, "boys play well into midnight, can I join you… I can play too" – and then the band, led by aimless electric guitar noodling, proceeds to drown her out. She followed the album with the seasonal Midwinter Graces, a vocal nadir that contains Christian radio-lite like 'Harps Of Gold' and boasts a Little Photoshop Of Horror as an album cover.

So, at this point, is at as simple to say that Amos had just run out of steam? Her best years behind her? That's surely the reason why she's not getting her due? Well, no… it's more complex than that. Amos' 2000s are kind of like Joni Mitchell's 1980s; you'd be hard pressed to find a Mitchell fan who puts 1985's Dog Eat Dog or 1988's Chalk Mark In A Rainstorm right at the top of the pile, but – guess what – there are gems to be found, yes, even there. 'Good Friends', 'Impossible Dreamer', 'Lucky Girl', 'My Secret Place'. They might not hang together as strongly as full pieces of work, but there are flashes of excellence. Similarly, while The Beekeeper and American Doll Posse are, not to put too fine a point on it, somewhat chaotic, to dismiss them outright is to miss out on some great work and also to avoid an interesting discussion about what happens when artists lose their way a little. Does it have an overarching effect on the rest of their body of work? Does it speak of the value we place on albums as an art form? If Amos had put out a couple of note-perfect EPs instead of two epic long-players, what kind of conversation would we be having?

Various factors are at play in this era; in a shock to precisely no one, it isn't like the sexism of the music business has gone away, and Amos, in her forties, no longer riding that wave of 90s alternative pop, was navigating new territory. The entire decade seems like a bit of a muddle; I think the subtext of American Doll Posse is telling. Musically, it's a grab-bag of styles without really settling on any of them with much long-term conviction, and Amos was clearly thinking about image, stereotypes, the categories women find themselves placed into – I find it interesting that some of her most maligned work is wrapped up in glossy, airbrushed album sleeves with convoluted concepts and alter-egos. There's a disconnect going on in the work.

It's naïve to suggest that Amos suddenly became a little robotic or distant, that just because she may have 'been' 'Scarlet' or 'Pip', or organised her songs into conceptual gardens (or rather brilliantly, I might add, the Dewey Decimal System on the retrospective Tales Of A Librarian) in her album artwork she was no longer writing personally. Whatever you think of the level of inspiration or the creativity in the writing and production, it doesn't take Einstein to deduce that these records are peppered with songs with pretty heavy themes: marital conflict ('Jamaica Inn', 'Goodbye Pisces'), self-doubt and loss of identity ('Parasol', 'Starling', the faux-jolly 'Programmable Soda' and hell the entire concept of American Doll Posse), displacement ('Welcome To England'), worries over ageing ('Secret Spell', 'Curtain Call'), record company drama ('Barons Of Suburbia', 'Code Red'), bereavement ('The Beekeeper', 'Toast'). In '500 Miles', in the midst of an otherwise peppy bubblegum arrangement, she suddenly breaks off for a verse of uncomplicated beauty and ends it by repeating, "I lost myself, I lost myself."

Amos' reputation, even after records like Pele and Choirgirl, didn't reflect the invention and originality of her sound and vision. By the end of the 2000s, when that invention and originality was increasingly fractured, she appeared to be at something resembling a dead-end.

A chance commission by Germany's classical label Deutsche Grammophon began to turn things around. 2011's Night Of Hunters is a song cycle (again with bizarre Amosian prog-rock concept involving a fox and a goose) that takes music from master classical composers including Bach, Chopin, and Satie, as its core and adds lyrics and, on occasion, Amos' top-line melodies. It's funny how things can go full circle: released from the Peabody Institute at age 11 for exhibiting a greater penchant for The Doors than Debussy, Amos was once again coming to terms with her classical heritage. Curiously, by working with existing compositions, Amos was able to rediscover some of the things that made her music so invigorating in the first place – the thunderous bass riffs of 'Shattering Sea', the easy flow of 'Fearlessness', the epic dynamics of 'Star Whisperer'. When the melody soars and the vocal layers weave in at the climax of 'Edge Of The Moon', it's hard not to feel real joy – there is a classic Tori Amos moment if ever there was one. On the accompanying tour with the Apollon Musagete string quartet, Amos boldly and expressively reimagined past songs ('Cruel', 'Suede') in an experimental, exciting way.

It paved the way for her two most recent LPs, 2014's Unrepentant Geraldines and 2017's Native Invader, which, to use the Mitchell analogy, are like her Night Ride Home and Turbulent Indigo after Dog Eat Dog and Chalk Mark. Free of concept, at their best, they are albums that just "be". Amos is at her best when her music flows, seemingly effortlessly; in much of her 2000s work, you can hear the nuts and bolts, you can hear the effort, the stitching; in her most recent work, there are songs that capture the purity that made her best work so impressive – 'Oysters', a perfect pearl of a song, is a prime example, but also 'Selkie', 'Invisible Boy', 'America' with its delightful melodic turns, 'Unrepentant Geraldines' with its natural structural complexity.

The piano was back at the centre, and I am by no means a piano purist. Not enough is said, I think, about To Venus And Back, for instance, where Amos' versatility as a composer shines. It's just that, now, Amos let her songs go to the party dressed how they wanted to be dressed. I would dearly love to hear some of the American Doll Posse demos, that's for sure.

On Native Invader, 'Bats' has the same kind of fluid quality you find in her most inspired work, and 'Bang' and 'Climb' capture a level of natural intensity. Periodic collaborator John Philip Shenale arranges the two darkly beautiful jewels that bookend the album, 'Reindeer King' and 'Mary's Eyes'. These albums are not without their vague missteps, but the best of them ranks among the highest peaks of her catalogue – yet are we talking about them like we should?

The magnetism and potency of her live performances have never been in question. The power with which she hits the high notes or jumps full throttle into a mythical rarity or transforms other people's songs keeps audiences coming back time and time again. But when was the last time we were talking about a Tori Amos record as something to really dissect? It may be hard to dissect an album like Midwinter Graces but even in American Doll Posse there is substance to consider. Earlier on, I called it "frivolous" and I realise that that is me taking it at face value, as it seems so easy to do with Amos' later records – I am not immune to falling into the same traps as many others.

These days, the tide appears to be turning a little. Annie Clark and Mike Hadreas, otherwise known as St Vincent and Perfume Genius, two of the leading art-rock auteurs of their generation, have publicly cited Amos as an influence; Taylor Swift had been moved enough by 'A Sorta Fairytale' to perform part of it in concert, and Pitchfork, seemingly out of nowhere, reviewed Native Invader quite warmly, their first such review of Amos' new work. Things sometimes have a ripple effect; it would be heartening if the cumulative result of Unrepentant Geraldines and Native Invader was to resituate Amos as a leading alternative pop composer whose work was something to embrace and take on its own merit.

But there are no neat endings. The way in which we examine, appraise, and respect the work of female songwriters, the way in which we critique them and how so much of the critique can be two-dimensional, is an ongoing conversation. How much we let image and perception inform our views, and how that in turn can affect, or infect, the work of the artist. How unrealistic it is, both of us and of the artist, to expect sustained excellence over twenty, thirty, forty years, the ebbs and flows of inspiration (and the ingenious ways of getting around the ebbs) and how we reconcile these things. Amos isn't the first and won't be the last artist to experience all of the above. And for all that has worked against her, let's remember that she has never, ever gone away. The insightful reactions and analyses provoked by Fiona Apple's Fetch The Bolt Cutters are heartening; it would be something to hope for that Amos' work, whatever form it may take in the future, be granted the examination it deserves.