The Way We Communicate
53 · 1 February 96
Tori Amos: Boys for Pele
Boys for Pele is Tori Amos' third album. Her first one, 1992's Little Earthquakes, essentially defined that year for me, and remains my nomination for the greatest debut album of all time (and yes, I say that knowing that in some technical senses it is not her debut). The second one, 1994's Under the Pink, is a little harder to fathom, which means that my slow process of growing to love it took maybe four listens, rather than two. Along the way she released enough b-sides and compilation tracks to fill a couple more albums, both quantity- and quality-wise, and I even tracked down an original vinyl cut-out copy of Y Kant Tori Read, her abortive LA pop-metal band's vastly underrated record. Then, however, there was a long silence. The only bit of Tori music that came out with a 1995 copyright was her version of "Famous Blue Raincoat" on the Leonard Cohen tribute Tower of Song, and even that was a much-delayed (some would say not delayed enough) release originally slated for 1994.
My anticipation around Boys for Pele, though, involves much more than merely time. Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, to me, form one era. By analogy with Kate Bush's career, these two albums are Tori's The Kick Inside and Lionheart. They are brilliant albums, which I wholly expect to sound as good to me two decades from now as Kate's first two still sound today. They are different albums. They are, however, albums that show one stage in a performer's evolution, not two.
They are also, I feel, albums that display a fundamental immaturity. The things that make Kate unique are audible in many places on The Kick Inside, but there is no denying that it is a record on which she has not yet exerted the level of auteurial control that she would begin to on Never for Ever, and fully realize for the first time on The Dreaming. The generic late-Seventies studio-band arrangements are charming, but hopelessly products of the time, not the artist. Listening to Tori's first two albums, I predicted that they would come to seem just as bizarre. Boys for Pele, then, is Tori's turn to take control. The one detail that stood between my obsessive devotion to her catalog and taking her the rest of the way into my heart was the theoretical possibility that she might not rise to meet the third-album challenge. What if she just fell back on formula, and made More Earthquakes? Well, we'll never know.
There are many arresting things about Boys for Pele, but its musical core is an element that should be intensely familiar to anybody who paid the slightest attention to anything else Tori's ever done. Her music always begins with the piano. As I've said elsewhere, I consider the combination of Tori and a Bosendorfer piano to be the most seamless combination of human and machine in my awareness. The sounds that she makes with it do not come from the piano, they come from Tori. That there is wood and wire involved in the process, as well as her fingers, is a detail so miraculous and inexplicable that I am frankly unable to think about it coherently, and so consequently prefer to pretend I've forgotten it.
The second base ingredient in Tori's sound is her voice, which is to me as exhilarating a product of human physical evolution as her piano playing is of tool-making. There are singers with greater range, I'm sure, but in my opinion there is nobody who invests the singing of human language with as much expressive nuance. I don't know how to examine audio the way computer visualization lets you dive ever deeper into the Mandelbrot set, but listening to Tori I feel like there are worlds in her words, if we only knew how to hear the right way. The dynamic range of home stereo gear runs out long before Tori's ability to exploit it.
Boys for Pele, however, finds Tori, in her new guise as self-producer, unwilling to just trade on her playing and singing the way her first two albums tended to. She runs the Bosendorfer through a Leslie cabinet on a couple of songs, but after the Marshall distortion of her cover of "If 6 Was 9" and the prepared piano of "Bells for Her", this isn't that strange. Her most unexpected twist, actually, isn't processing at all, but a switch of instrument, as songs here find her playing harpsichord, harmonium organ, and clavichord. The harpsichord is a particularly baroque touch (especially on "Blood Roses" where she runs it through a Marshall amp), and its frequent use helps make this album feel oddly out of time. The additional players also seem like much more conscious individual additions, especially James Watson's trumpet on "Father Lucifer", Alan Friedman's brutal drum programming on "Professional Widow" (where the harpsichord acts as a very strange counterpoint), Clarence Johnson's lithe sax on "Muhammad My Friend", the heaving gospel choir on "Way Down", and the simmering bagpipes on "In the Springtime of His Voodoo".
In a way the most remarkable thing about the music Tori Amos makes is how much you would miss by failing to pay close attention to what she says with it. You have to be prepared for two things if you choose to listen carefully, though. First, Tori's songs can be extremely intense and disturbing, and many times the songs that seem most innocuous are the most disturbing ones the more you understand what's going on. The other thing you have to be prepared for, and perhaps sometimes this is a saving grace given the first thing, is that Tori is perfectly willing to build songs out of images and references whose significance is almost certain to elude anybody but her.
Now, neither of these tactics are wholly new. While "Me and a Gun" and "Crucify", from Little Earthquakes, were explicit about the issues they confronted, in many ways "Silent All These Years" was a more profound and unsettling song. And while it was pretty easy to grasp the heretical central point of "God" (though recognizing the affection in its heresy took a little more attention), I'm not sure if even Alice Walker would have picked up on the Alice Walker allusions in "Cornflake Girl" if Tori hadn't explained them in interviews after Under the Pink came out. Boys for Pele raises both elements to new levels, though, and by interweaving three polemical threads makes an album of almost oppressive overall coherence out of one whose individual details, taken singly, are often totally impenetrable.
The first two threads are familiar ones, sex and religion. (The Pele of the title is, perhaps disappointingly, not the Brazilian soccer star but the Polynesian volcano goddess.) Tori's uniquely twisted contribution to these subjects is her blithe tendency to conflate the two of these as if they are not only related, but literally one topic, and one that random strangers would think nothing of launching into if you stopped them on the street and asked them what was on their mind. Creatures of myth are just eccentric neighbors to Tori, and her mental image of bringing "Boys to Pele" is probably far closer to her trudging up a winding basalt path with a plate of gingerbread men than some intricate bonfire-lit ritual of appeasement. The definitive lyrical moment may well be her casual small-talk inquiry, in "Father Lucifer", "How's your Jesus Christ been hanging?" Or, then again, perhaps it's "Muhammad my friend, / It's time to tell the world, / We both know it was a girl / Back in Bethlehem." Or the surprising detail, in "Twinkle", "She said 'I killed a man, T, / I've got to stay hidden in this Abbey'". Or, moving away from Tori's oddly informal cosmology, there are always such trademark shudder-inducing sexual-confession insights as "I shaved every place where you been, boy", "And this little masochist / Is lifting up her dress" and "I got my rape hat on, / Honey, but I always could accessorize".
Before this, though, at least to me, these ideas mostly existed one song at a time. Boys for Pele is the first time that the whole album has also seemed to be a single meta-argument. When I try to isolate the continuity and find it in specific words, I can't, though, so I think the impression is due to two things. First, the eighteen songs here revisit the central motifs several times, from various perspectives. With the possible exception of "Silent All These Years" and "Me and a Gun" on Little Earthquakes, neither of her previous albums seriously attempted to repeat subjects within them. Here, however, we have religious references in "Father Lucifer", "Professional Widow", "Caught a Lite Sneeze", "Muhammad My Friend", "Hey Jupiter", "Talula", "In the Springtime of His Voodoo" and "Twinkle"; media references in "Horses", "Father Lucifer", "Professional Widow", "Mr. Zebra", "Not the Red Baron" and "Putting the Damage On"; references to the South in "Blood Roses", "Little Amsterdam", "Talula" and "In the Springtime of His Voodoo". These common themes don't necessarily make the relevance of every detail clear (I've yet to think of any vaguely sensible theory for how "Mr. Zebra" fits into any of this, for example, especially its mention of Kaiser Wilhelm), but they do mean that once you decipher any one little piece, suddenly there's this much larger puzzle into which it might somehow fit.
The other explanation for a feeling of narrative consistency is the remarkable liner art, and its gender-reversed co-opting of the iconography of the American South (which also constitutes the third polemical thread). The cover, with a muddy Tori sprawled in a dilapidated porch rocking chair holding a gun across her lap, while a dead rooster hangs to her one side and a snake twines around a chair leg on the other, could probably support an essay all on its own, especially if you threw in the back cover, where the snake has invited in a horde of distant relatives and Tori has traded the gun for a rather adorable pig. I won't ruin the surprise of the other photographs in the series, but there are seven very carefully staged shots among them, and one that, were it visible from the outside of a sealed copy, would instantly earn Tori a lifelong ban from Bible-belt K-Marts.
Now, after all of this, some of those few of you who are still reading might ask, meekly, if the album is actually any good. I think it's phenomenal. It's Tori's strangest and most oblique album by a large margin, but there are little hooks lurking everywhere. Just when you think a song has wandered off into non-linear stream of musical consciousness, a perfect melodic breath will escape Tori's lips. The willfully difficult touches, like the minimal single-note piano part on "Beauty Queen", the ghoulish processing on "Professional Widow", and the stiff harpsichords throughout, are balanced by things like the show tune strut of "Mr. Zebra", the infectious drum loops of "Caught a Lite Sneeze", the rich choir of "Way Down", the cascading harmony parts and smooth horns of "Talula", and the intricate lope of "In the Springtime of His Voodoo". And "Hey Jupiter" and "Doughnut Song" could be Tori's best songs yet in her me-and-a-piano mold.
In fact, you are present at a momentous occasion in my life. As with many moments of personal significance, your presence at this one doesn't mean that you will share its impact, but you're a witness regardless, and there's something essential to me about having a public component to this revelation, without which it might not seem wholly real. The life-change is this: Tori Amos is now one of my five favorite artists. Depending on how obsessive and self-analytical you are about music, this may seem like more or less of an event, and perhaps this says more than I ought to reveal about the hierarchy of what I value in this world, but this is as big as decisions get in my life. Music is the core around which my self-identity seems, at least from this close range, to be wrapped, and "one of my favorite artists" is both the highest level of emotional commitment I make, and the most restrictive music-related list I can bear to be associated with. If you've read many of these columns, it will be clear to you that condensing my feelings about music is hardly a forte of mine. It takes me a month of agonizing effort every December to reduce my experience of just one year in music to a couple tie-distended top-ten lists and assorted additional notices. From there I could make a list of music that seems truly great to me, which would probably, after enough merciless editing, be shorter than the sum of my yearly lists. Beyond that I can make a Desert Island Disk list of sorts, although usually when I do so I feel compelled to mention the second ten selections along with the first. Twenty artists and twenty album titles, then, that's the second smallest list I can make that says anything I regard as significant about what kind of person I am. The smallest list, up until last week, consisted of four names. If you had asked me about music, and slowly squeezed the trigger of a gun held to my head while I answered -- that is, if my life had literally depended on brevity -- the shortest sentence I could conscion would have been "My four favorites are Big Country, Kate Bush, Game Theory/The Loud Family and Marillion." Possibly the extra words necessitated by Scott Miller's decision to rename his band would have been the difference between my survival and obliteration. So be it.
Tonight, then, I am becoming four syllables less evolutionarily fit. I no longer feel I can say that sentence without including Tori Amos' name. Big Country earned its place in my life back in 1984, when they put out Steeltown. Kate Bush claimed hers with 1985's Hounds of Love, Game Theory joined with 1987's Lolita Nation, and Marillion's induction came after 1989's Seasons End. In 1996, Tori's Boys for Pele proves to me her mastery over her own art, and gets her the fifth spot. Tomorrow I want to wake up and feel like a new person. Because if music can't change my life, I don't know what can.