As rock history has shown, wild-eyed, piano-playing odd-balls have a tendency to morph into adult-contemporary smoothies — think Elton John, the most enduring example of this disheartening mutation. But would anyone have imagined such a thing happening to pop’s high priestess of passion, Tori Amos? The first sign of her transformation was 2002’s ”A Sorta Fairytale,” a sad and bittersweet road-trip breakup song that featured lulling piano chords and a restrained delivery far removed from the orange-haired Medusa of old — the Amos who erotically caressed her keyboard while singing unflinching songs about rape and masturbation.
Not surprisingly, the single was an AC hit, and the album from which it came, Scarlet’s Walk, also signaled that Amos had entered a calmer era. On The Beekeeper, Amos continues leaving the mannered eccentricities to new Toris like Nellie McKay, and seems hell-bent on out-doing Sarah McLachlan in the mellowed-new-mom department. Picking up where ”A Sorta Fairytale” left off, Amos keeps the melodies and arrangements relatively pared down and gentle. Even when she’s returning to exciting subjects like sex (”Sweet the Sting”) or confronting her lover about an affair (the very mildly funky ”Hoochie Woman” ), she holds her most self-indulgent side in check. Maybe she yearns to make the massive follow-up hit Paula Cole never did after ”Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and ”I Don’t Want to Wait.”
This refurbished version of Amos has its drawbacks. Her lyrics have grown even more conventional: Hard to believe from someone who once posed for an album photo with a piglet sucking at her breast, but she resorts to comparing herself to a revved-up automobile in ”Cars and Guitars” and describing a flighty beau as the proverbial fluttery insect in ”Sleeps With Butterflies.” In her new memoir-confessional book, Piece by Piece, she explains that ”Barons of Suburbia” is about fake friends and users, especially within the music industry. But what you’d expect to be a bilious screed turns out to be calm and meditative, with Amos’ whooping-crane vocal so reined in that you’d hardly know she was angry. Same goes with the simmer-on-low groove of ”Witness,” another song that also deals, elliptically, with betrayal.
While these changes may be cause for concern for the devout, they’re not such a bad thing. The Beekeeper is the Tori Amos album for those normally freaked out by Tori Amos. Her wack-job shtick was beginning to grow old anyway, so the reserved gospel choirs and humming soul organs that decorate these songs, while not exactly what one would call innovative, are easier on the ears. In any case, Amos remains too much of a weirdo to fully bland out: ”Wrap yourself around the Tree of Life and the Dance of the Infinity of the Hive,” she sings at one point, adding, for reasons known only to herself, ”Take this message to Michael.” Working in a world where it pays to be ordinary, Amos wants to retain at least some of her youthful quirks as she matures. It may sound like faint praise, but soul-baring singer-songwriters have suffered far worse fates.