Plenty of people love Tori Amos. Her breakthrough 1992 album, Little Earthquakes, went gold, and her cult appeal was strong enough to spawn a follow-up EP, on which this ferociously peculiar singer-songwriter improbably crooned a gauzy cover of Nirvana’s ”Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Then, of course, there are those who think she’s too peculiar – too mannered and too pretentious. They might hear her as the most annoyingly precious artist who ever lived, an unlikely blend of Joni Mitchell and Sinéad O’Connor, screeching off into the most light-headed regions of outer space.
But one thing is hard for anyone to reject: Measured simply by her raw ability, Tori Amos is a phenomenal talent. And signs of that talent are everywhere on her new album, Under the Pink (Atlantic). Her singing – sometimes nearly a whisper, sometimes a tortured shriek – is, at least in small doses, arrestingly intense. Her lyrics, too, can short your circuits. In a song called ”Icicle,” for instance, she declares independence from the Bible, communion, and most other hallmarks of her childhood Christianity. ”I think the good book is missing some pages,” she complains, and then continues with this striking bit of insurrectionary sexual blasphemy: ”When my hand touches myself I can finally rest my head, and when they say ‘take of his body’ I think I’ll take from mine instead.”
Amos’ music is more striking still. She’s a formidable pianist, able to play with both power and trembling delicacy. She writes songs that take off on unexpected flights, blossoming without warning into explosions of melodic fireworks. (The album’s first track, ”Pretty Good Year,” does just that when lyrics about a friend’s trip to New York send Amos’ voice into a stratospheric spin.) But nearly as often, her tunes relax into breathtaking simplicity. She works with an astounding range of sound, from tiny wisps to the outer limits of sheer noise, with detours into pure whimsy – an offbeat waltz, say, or the bouncing beat of simple good – time rock & roll. Few pop artists ever offer such variety or such richness of musical detail – let alone evocative hooks and nonstop floods of emotion.
But then there’s that preciousness. In a press release distributed with advance copies of the album, Atlantic says Under the Pink is about ”taking control of one’s life and one’s being.” Without the label’s explanation, though, would anybody know? Not even an immigrant freshly arrived from Albania could torture the English language as much as Amos does. In a song called ”The Waitress,” she painstakingly deconstructs the name of something we’ve all had for lunch into sounds never heard in any earthly tongue. Did anyone ever take such trouble to make the phrase ”club sandwich” sound so obscure?
Even when you read the lyrics in the CD booklet, you might not understand most of them. Here’s a fair sample, from ”Cornflake Girl”: ”Never was a cornflake girl thought that was a good solution hangin’ with the raisin girls…peel out the watchword just peel out the watchword.” Sometimes lines as inscrutable as these are introduced with simple, ritualistic refrains (”Baker Baker baking a cake”), as if the songs were nursery rhymes. Maybe this is Amos’ way of evoking an aura of injured innocence, but all it really adds is an extra layer of exasperation for listeners.
In the end, though, you’re left with music that’s hard to forget. Like the chorus of ”Past the Mission,” it’s as catchy as anything that ever topped the pop charts, but is also burnished with a somber glow that lifts it into a class of its own. And if you ask what it all means, well, at least one thing is unmistakably clear: Tori Amos thinks she’s singing about something very important. Whether she’s right – whether she’s focused on anything deep enough to support her exhausting intensity – is something even sympathetic listeners may have trouble figuring out. B