So, hands up if you’re tired of reading my complaints about Tori Amos.
Too bad I can’t see you all, because I’m sure most of your hands are still in the air. I know, I know. It’s become a semi-annual thing. Tori Amos, once perhaps the most vital and important female artist in the world, releases another middling, overlong, boring, soulless record, and I whine about how she’s not as good as she used to be, but I can’t stop buying her stuff. I’m probably as sick of that cycle as you are.
I’m just not sure what else to do. If Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink and Boys for Pele didn’t mean so much to me, even now, I wouldn’t be so let down by shaky works like 2009’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin. I’d be OK with what Tori’s been giving us if I didn’t know how much better she can be. Tori’s music used to make me feel like no one else’s – it was agony and wonder and fury and heartbreak and joy. It was everything I wanted music to be. And lately, her work makes me feel nothing at all.
You can forgive me, then, for sighing audibly when word of Tori’s 12th album, Night of Hunters, hit the net. Here was another ass-aching concept album, stretching to 72 minutes. This one, apparently, would incorporate variations on classical music themes, and would tell the story of a woman suffering after a broken relationship, and regaining her power with the help of a talking fox. I mean, wow. That sounds like a steaming pile of pretentious and worthless, right?
Well, apparently Tori was getting tired of the same old cycle too, because Night of Hunters turns out to be the most interesting musical detour she’s taken in a good long time. And even though it is suffocated by its concept, and remains surprisingly distant, it’s the best damn thing she’s done since her glory days.
For one thing, Night of Hunters returns Amos to her classic sound – piano, voice and orchestra – for the entire running time. And it’s so good to hear her in this context again. As much as she loves her skittering electronic beats and synthesizers, I don’t think her voice has ever sounded comfortable atop so much noise. But this sounds like home. From the first low, rumbling notes of “Shattering Sea,” this record hits me like the Tori Amos of old. This context has always seemed right for her to me, and if nothing else, I’m glad we finally have an entire album of it.
Of course, it wasn’t her idea. Deutsche Gramophon, the renowned classical label, approached Amos with the idea of creating a song cycle based on variations on classical pieces, and that’s just what she’s done. Every song here incorporates melodies and moments from pieces by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Bach and others. Some are subtle, others overt, but it’s clear Amos really understands these pieces, and respects them.
“Shattering Sea,” for example, is based on a spooky piano theme by Charles-Valentin Alkan, “Op. 31 No. 8,” subtitled “The Song of the Madwoman on the Seashore.” Amos deftly changes the melody to suit her own song, then elevates it – what’s amazing about the finished product is how much it sounds like a terrific Tori Amos song. (Hear a comparison here.) The string section is like an all-encompassing wave here, powerful and relentless, and Amos’ incorporation of Alkan’s melody for the bridge section is spine-tinglingly good.
Some of these variations are more successful than others, but all have been crafted with care. The nearly nine-minute “Battle of Trees” has an Erik Satie piece as its blueprint, and it stays in one place a little too often. But its follow-up on the record, “Fearlessness,” is simply remarkable. Its home base is “Orinetale,” a haunting piano composition by Enrique Granados, but Amos turns it into an almost superhumanly soaring number, her voice and the strings playing off one another brilliantly.
The only thing that keeps “Fearlessness” from crawling under my skin and setting up shop in my soul is the lyrics, and this is where the ridiculous concept starts to become a stumbling block. Tori’s been fleshing out these album-length metaphors since Strange Little Girls, but for the most part, it’s been easy to ignore them entirely and just listen to the songs as songs.
Not so here. Amos says the fanciful travails her characters go through on Night of Hunters are essentially a representation of her own 16-years-and-counting marriage, but I wish she’d just written songs about that. Here is the chorus of “Fearlessness,” just to give you an idea: “Teams of horses of the brine followed his cry through the fire, demons of the wild hissed with the wind, did you listen?” Here’s another gem, from the nine-minute “Star Whisperer”: “Night warns of an eastern threat, north calls reinforcements from the west, lost all reason guarded by the wise, sing to life the seven lords of time.” Um, OK.
So what we have here are beautiful, melodic, powerfully-arranged songs, showcasing Amos’ undiminished voice, and I have no idea what the fuck she’s going on about for most of this record’s running time. “Battle of Trees” is seriously about our heroine seeing a vision of an earlier version of herself, fighting her enemies with nothing but the “alphabet of trees” as her weapon. A handy guide to the tree alphabet is included in the liner notes, as if we’re really going to parse this for clues. The knock-on effect is that this record starts to sound scholarly, like a cerebral exercise more than an artistic expression, and despite the remarkable music here, that keeps me at arm’s length.
So the story involves a fox that can talk and impart wisdom, and that character is played by Amos’ 11-year-old daughter, Natashya Hawley. Thankfully, the girl can sing, so this isn’t just a case of rampant nepotism, but it’s still somewhat jarring, especially when she takes a whole song, as she does on “Job’s Coffin.” Amos’ niece Kelsey Dobyns plays the part of the “fire muse” (don’t ask) on one track as well. I’m not opposed to this – hell, the Decemberists made me love their theatrical, multi-voice effort, The Hazards of Love. I’m just not sure it works as well as it should here.
But when Tori settles in and gives us a straightforward slice of real beauty, I can forgive a lot. “Your Ghost” is one such gorgeous track, a variation of a Robert Schumann piece. As the strings build and build, Amos sings, “Please leave me your ghost, I will keep him from harm.” It is, to this point, the most crushingly beautiful thing on the record, mainly because it is the most direct. Something like “The Chase,” a dialogue between Amos and Annabelle the fox that is recognizably based on Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” is an interesting exercise that leaves you kind of confused, and kind of empty. But a song like “Your Ghost” opens a conduit to your heart.
On that scale, the album’s best song is its last. “Carry” is the first Tori Amos song since “I Can’t See New York” to move me nearly to tears. Based on the glorious “The Girl With the Flaxen Hair,” by Claude Debussy, Tori’s song is a gorgeous eulogy to one departed, and a promise to remember. “Your name is sung and tattooed now on my heart, here I will carry, carry, carry you forever,” Amos sings, and her voice, the melody, the strings, everything works. The variations on familiar themes here certainly intrigue my musical mind, but a song like “Carry” tears me right open, and that’s what I want from Tori Amos.
And I’m so glad to hear she can still deliver that. Not every song on Night of Hunters works to that degree, but they are all worth hearing, and for the first time in longer than I care to remember, the high points of a Tori Amos album far outweigh the low. I’m grateful to Amos for trying this experiment, for throwing her whole self into it (batty concept and all), and for at last giving me more songs to love. At this point, it’s more than I thought I would ever get again.
Next week, loads of stuff, I hope. Certainly Matthew Sweet, the Bangles, Lindsey Buckingham, and maybe Switchfoot, St. Vincent, Wilco… who knows. Tune in to find out. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.