If you’d told me back in 1997 that one day, Kesha would make a better album than Tori Amos, I would have said, “Who’s Kesha?” I mean, she was seven years old then.
But the point stands. Twenty years ago, Tori Amos was one of the most vital musicians on the planet. Her third album, Boys for Pele, was messier and angrier and all-around more fascinating than her immortal first two, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. In 1997, Amos seemed incapable of creating music that wasn’t intensely emotional, wasn’t like listening to her soul cry out, either in anguish or exultation. Every line, every word, every sky-high note felt not only like she meant it, but like she had no choice but to play and sing it.
Those first three albums remain fast favorites. Not a year goes by when I don’t pull them out and bask in them all over again. (The recently released deluxe remasters provided a nice excuse.) They’re perfect. And I want to live in the alternate universe where she stopped there, refusing to make music that didn’t live up to that unstoppable trilogy. Unfortunately, I live in this one, where Amos kept going and going, her returns diminishing and diminishing.
There have been bright spots since. I liked most of 1999’s To Venus and Back, her deep dive into electronica. I heard traces of the old Tori fire on 2007’s American Doll Posse. I thought 2011’s orchestral experiment, Night of Hunters, was quite good. And I enjoyed much of 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines, which I almost referred to as a return to form. But the best of these records, meaning the best songs Amos has released in 20 years, don’t hold a candle to her first three for emotional resonance. I don’t really remember much of American Doll Posse, ten years on, and I think that’s the best record she’s made since Pele.
And yet, I live in hope. I keep buying Tori Amos albums, despite the fact that I haven’t loved one in two decades. I feel like fans of a hard-luck baseball team, saying “maybe next time” over and over. But hell, the Cubs won the World Series last year after more than a century, so anything’s possible. So I pay my money and I take my chance, every time. Because I believe she can still make music that moves me.
Sadly, on the just-released Native Invader, she’s only succeeded in boring me. The title of this, her fifteenth album, led me to expect something with teeth. But Native Invader just sort of… happens, slowly and meanderingly, like the worst parts of Scarlet’s Walk stripped of any urgency. Some of it is pretty, like a portrait of flowers in a waiting room. Much of it is merely pleasant, and all of it is forgettable.
I don’t want to suggest that this isn’t a well-made record. It cuts a nice compromise between Amos’ organic and electronic music, relying mostly on her electric piano and Mark Aladdin’s guitars to ground her programmed drums and bass lines. The songs are all too long, but if you can pay attention without drifting off, some of them have nice structures. The whole thing sounds polished and fussed over, tweaked and re-tweaked over the two years she was working on it.
But it’s soulless. Amos’ vocals are mixed low and there just for utility – she sings these songs, but she doesn’t embody them, doesn’t live them. I still like what she says here. “Broken Arrow” takes aim at colonialism, “Up the Creek” (the only song with a pulse) fires at “those climate-blind,” and “Bang” delivers a “we are all stardust” message of unity. But when she sings them, over this bland and wandering music, I don’t care. I have listened to all 68 minutes of Native Invader three times now, and I just don’t care about it.
Are there things about it I like? Sure. Opener “Reindeer King” is seven minutes of Tori and her piano, and it conjures up a nicely foreboding atmosphere. The other two stripped-back songs, “Breakaway” and “Climb,” are highlights, even if they feel like they would have been b-sides back in the ‘90s. “Up the Creek” is pretty swell, its electronic bass announcing itself early. (Real strings would have made this a keeper.) I like the prog-rock excess at the end of “Bang,” and the melodic twist of the key line in “Cloud Riders.” One of the bonus tracks is a sequel to “Upside Down,” an amazing early song, and while it doesn’t measure up at all, it’s still nice. (Its hook line is seriously “we gotta turn that frown upside down,” though.)
It isn’t enough, though. Native Invader is another boring disappointment from an artist I once revered. I still admire her, and I will keep buying her music until one of us dies. And I will likely go through this same ritual every couple years, getting my hopes up and then slogging through whatever she puts out, my spirits falling with every note. Because when it comes to Tori Amos, I’m like Fox Mulder. I have no evidence that her new music will awaken that spark in me and resonate like her early work does, but man, I want to believe.
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Speaking of wanting to believe, I really want to believe that Play Dead, the eerily-titled and just-released fifth Mutemath album, will not be their last.
Even if it isn’t, Play Dead will likely be the final album from the band I’ve come to know as Mutemath over the past thirteen years. In the months before its release, both guitarist Roy Mitchell-Cardenas and drummer Darren King announced their departure from the band, leaving only pianist/singer Paul Meany from the original lineup. If you know Mutemath you know that King, especially, is central to their identity. I know many people who only recognize Mutemath as “that band with the awesome drummer,” and now he’s gone.
Play Dead, then, stands as the final testament from this incarnation of the band. Meany has brought in new musicians and is soldiering on, but I expect future albums, if there are any, to basically be Meany solo efforts. That particular chemistry between the original band members will be gone. I’m thankful, though, that it’s all over this new record. Play Dead brings together everything Mutemath does well and wraps it all up in a newfound propensity for prog-rock.
The Mutemathers have been working on Play Dead for five years. The sessions got so intense that, partway through, they took a break and recorded an entirely different album, 2015’s Vitals. I have a complex relationship with that record – I dismissed it at first as synth-laden fluff, but couldn’t put it away, and ended up adoring it. Vitals sounded little like the Mutemath I first fell in love with, but over time I fell for this new sound too, and now I consider it one of my favorites.
My appreciation for Vitals helped me grasp and enjoy Play Dead right away. This one isn’t going to need a period of adjustment – I’m into it right now. The synth-heavy sound is still in evidence, but it’s harder and heavier, and in service of songs that are trickier and meatier. I’ve been trying to think of a term to describe what the band has conjured up here. Maybe dance-prog? That fits songs like “Break the Fever,” which combines a complex, Yes-like arrangement with the hookiness of Hall and Oates.
Mostly, though, Play Dead sounds like this immensely talented band finding yet another unique new sound and exploring it to its limit. I can definitely see Vitals as a chance to blow off steam in the middle of this thing – Play Dead is massive. Opener “Hit Parade” starts with a quiet keys-and-vocals introduction, but soon explodes into a Black Keys-style riff (played on synths, of course) and a glorious sunrise of harmonies. “War” is a powerhouse, King nailing his drums over a big, almost bluesy mass. And then the strings come in. Even a quiet song like “Nuisance,” which wafts in and out on a delicate keyboard heartbeat, builds to almost towering proportions in the middle, melodies cresting like waves.
So it goes for most of this huge record, the band playing as if they’ll never get the chance again. A trifle like “Placed On Hold” erupts in its final third, the live energy practically bursting from it. “Everything’s New” shimmies confidently through its well-earned six minutes, including one of the band’s trademark instrumental interludes. Closer “Marching to the End” (and come on, this is their last record) begins as a ballad and crescendos into an anthem, much like “Remain” from Vitals.
It’s awesome, is what I’m saying, and yet it’s awesome in a totally new way for this band. It’s been quite a ride over the past decade-plus – I remember seeing Mutemath at the 2004 Cornerstone Festival and loving every second of their manic, pop-prog set, and being blown away by the Police-like first album in 2006. Every album since then has been a big step, either forward or sideways, and they’ve never let me down. (At least, not for long.) If Play Dead is the last Mutemath record, they went out doing what they do best – stepping out into the unknown and building something new. Very few bands do that well, and I’ll miss this one.
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Next week, Foo Fighters and Bruce Cockburn and a couple others. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.