Buying Tori Amos albums has begun to make me feel like an X-Men fan.
By any appreciable standard, very few of the dozen or so X-Men comics that come out each month are any good. In fact, despite pockets of overrated coherence (see Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men), the dozens of X-Men comics haven’t been any good since 1988 or so. How do I know this? Because I read comic book message boards, where people who have been buying every X-Men comic since the glory days of Claremont and Byrne congregate to bitch about how bad every X-Men comic is.
Here’s what’s always mystified me about X-Men fans. They know the books suck. They readily admit that the adventures of these seemingly hundreds of mutants in matching costumes haven’t been worth reading in almost 20 years. And yet, every week, they line up and spend tons of money – the average comic costs three dollars, and there are literally more than a dozen each month. In the latest Previews catalog, there are 16 X-Men books listed for April. That’s almost $50, for one month, to keep current on a story that hasn’t been good since the ‘80s.
I’m an insane collector of a number of things, and even I don’t get that.
But here I am, spending my 20 bucks this week to keep current with Tori Amos’ story, when I know that it hasn’t been a rewarding trip since 1996. Amos’ first three albums changed my life. They sparked emotions in me that I didn’t know music could spark. I used to look forward to new Tori albums, counting the days and grabbing any scrap of information I could about them before they were released. The night before Under the Pink came out, I couldn’t sleep. Seriously.
And now I dread them, knowing that I will go to the record store and plunk down my cash for dull disappointment. Twice now I have bought that dull disappointment in limited edition packaging, complete with bonus DVDs and maps and stickers and other crap. Why? Because I am a Tori Amos fan. Much like the poor X-Men fan who drags himself to the shop each week to buy something he knows will make his head hurt and deflate his little heart, I buy Tori albums because she was great once, and I believe she can be great again, and if I just weather this current storm of mediocrity, my faith will be rewarded.
Hey, it worked for U2 fans.
It’s just that the mediocrity keeps getting more mediocre, if that’s even possible. The downward slide started in 1998 with From the Choirgirl Hotel, a lame stab at commercialism that still contained about half an album’s worth of gems. To Venus and Back was better, but still not very good, and the covers record Strange Little Girls was better in concept than in execution. And then, two years ago, Scarlet’s Walk punched the bottom out of the airship. It was the worst thing she’d ever done.
I pulled out Scarlet’s Walk recently to give it another spin, and I’m afraid my original opinion stands. It’s a slog. 18 songs over 74 minutes, and if she had cut it in half, it would still have been her worst album. I ended up only liking three songs (“Carbon,” “I Can’t See New York” and “Gold Dust”), and of those, I still don’t really like any of them, not to the level that I have liked Tori songs in the past. The album is long stretches of absolute, crushing boredom punctuated by brief signs of life that flicker out before they can catch fire.
And now here’s The Beekeeper, Amos’ eighth album, and she’s taken the odd step of preemptively extinguishing those signs of life before pressing the record button. Beekeeper is 19 songs sprawling over 79 minutes, and it’s all oatmeal. I can’t even tell you how much I don’t want to write this next sentence, but I have to. This record is horrible, the new champion Worst Tori Amos Album Ever. Ten years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to convince me that there would one day be competition for that prize, but here we are.
There isn’t a single song on The Beekeeper that makes me glad I bought it. There are some pleasant moments, some songs (like the opener, “Parasol”) that hold up well when compared with most top 40 radio, but the Tori Amos of her first few records is completely absent. The album is slicked up in an inoffensive sheen, and dotted with really awful lite-funk (“Sweet the Sting,” “Witness,” “Hoochie Woman”), the kind that Phish tried to do for 10 years. Beyond the styles and the production, though, the songs are just plain boring, and Amos doesn’t even seem all that interested in them.
There are bits I like – the swirling piano in “Barons of Suburbia” is a lesser version of that in “Carbon” (which makes sense since “Barons” is a much lesser song), but is still somewhat enjoyable. The brief “Original Sinsuality” is a musical highlight, and it’s too bad that the lyrics are so self-satisfied and obvious. The title track has some neat textures, and “Marys of the Sea” is the best song on the album. Too bad it’s at track 18. After 70 minutes of snooze-inducing blandness, “Marys” comes charging in like a classic, but taken on its own, it’s merely okay.
The rest? Terrible, typical, sub-Sarah McLachlan mundanity. And it hurts me.
I tried to follow my own advice and divorce this album from Amos’ past, just assess it as the work of a new artist, and I can’t. Without the deeply resonant work Amos delivered on Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink and Boys for Pele, there would have been no reason at all for me to have bought this. As the work of a new artist, it is pleasant and forgettable, and I wish I could think of it in those terms and just forget it, but I’m a Tori Amos fan. I feel betrayed when she disregards her own immense talent and phones an album in, like she has here.
I don’t get this way with most artists. If Ani Difranco wants to take four years and four C-minus albums to do something noteworthy, I don’t feel like she’s stabbed me four times. I have a personal connection with Amos’ early work that I can’t explain. But even in the most dispassionate, critical terms, she is an incredible songwriter, pianist and singer, and she could have (and in some sense, should have) been making astounding records for the last decade. But she hasn’t been, and with each new crap-fest, it becomes harder for me to convince myself that she ever will again.
So why do I keep buying Tori Amos albums? Because she still has it. She’s buried it, but it pokes its head out every once in a while. Last year’s Welcome to Sunny Florida EP contained six songs, each of them better than all of Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper. Had I done the sensible thing and given up on Tori after Scarlet’s, I’d have missed out on some great work.
It’s getting harder to sift through the shit to find the corn, though. Case in point – the limited edition DVD that came with Beekeeper. The album made me sad, but the DVD made me kind of hate Amos. The interview segment is full of forced profundity, Tori obviously working hard to assign these second-rate songs a concept worthy of her. She’s always been a little loopy, of course, but she’s always been effortless about it. This interview makes her circular logic and oh-so-arty philosophies of life sound like work, like she’s selling her ideas to herself.
Really, it’s like this: “This garden is full of shapes, but not physical shapes, shapes of sound. And your shape may not be like my shape, yours might not be based hexagonically. But mine is based on a hexagon, because the cells of a honeycomb are hexagons, and of course you go to the beekeeper, right?” And I’m watching this, thinking two things: “Oh, my aching ass,” and, “What the hell is she talking about?”
But then, there’s an audio track on the DVD, called “Garlands.” And lo and behold, it’s a better song than anything on the album – it’s rich, full, expressive and bursting with the emotion Amos used to put into everything. It’s simply beautiful. And it raises a number of questions – foremost, if Amos can still reach into that place and create lovely statements like “Garlands,” then why doesn’t she? Why didn’t this song make the album? Why must one buy the limited edition package of a truly awful album to get to the one worthy song? Why didn’t she take “Garlands” as a challenge, say “Now we’re getting somewhere,” write 10 more like it and make a good record?
If Amos had completely lost the ability to make captivating work with an undercurrent of deep feeling, then I might not feel like kicking her, but she hasn’t, clearly. That she can write songs like “Garlands” and chooses to write songs like “The Power of Orange Knickers” is betrayal, plain and simple. Not just betrayal of her fans, even though it is that, but betrayal of her own prodigious gifts. She should be the most important female artist in the world, and she should be making music that forces people to pay attention, music that moves and reshapes and explores with passion. Music that will not be ignored. Instead, she’s making background noise for pre-formatted radio.
And it hurts.
But I will keep buying Tori Amos albums, like those sad X-Men fans, because I believe she can grab hold of her own power again. At this point, I don’t care what she chooses to sing about – she could make a 70-minute concept album about how great her kids are and how happy motherhood has made her, and I’d be in, as long as she meant it. Amos hasn’t sounded emotionally invested in anything she’s done for a long time, and The Beekeeper is the most remote, distant, uninvolving record she has made. It’s a record that all but dares me to give up on her, but I’m not doing it. I know she has great things left to say, great songs left to write.
Prove me right, Tori. Please. Prove me right.
* * * * *
We lost Hunter S. Thompson this week. This has been a really bad year for famous people I admire, and it’s only February.
Like a lot of would-be writers, I had two revelations about Hunter Thompson’s work. The first came after I encountered it for the first time, reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and that was that writing could be this alive, this dangerous, this all-involving. The second came years later, after numerous stabs at adapting Thompson into my own style, and that was that it can’t be done. There was only ever one Hunter Thompson.
My favorite Hunter-related memory has little to do with the man himself, since I never met him. But when I shared an apartment with Liz Balin, we had what we referred to as a “bathroom journal” – a little notebook that we would write in while on the toilet. I know, more info than you needed, but stick with me here. That journal rested in a bucket in the corner, and also in that bucket Liz had placed a thick volume called Daily Affirmations. And it was just as Stuart Smalley as it sounded.
So, of course, to counteract those vibes, I contributed my copy of Fear and Loathing to the bucket. I wasn’t hoping for much beyond spreading the disease that is Thompson’s writing to an unwitting recipient. I know that Liz read at least some of it, because one day I picked up the bathroom journal and found this written there, in a shaky hand: “What is this book?”
And I thought to myself, “Mission accomplished.”
I don’t have much to say about Hunter’s death, or the manner in which he chose to go, but if you’re looking for a good essay about it from someone who actually met the man, go here. It’s the blog of Dr. Tony Shore, and it’s worth reading beyond just the Thompson piece.
Next week, The Mars Volta.
See you in line Tuesday morning.