Review of Boys For Pele From The Village Voice
February 13, 1996
Deep Space Tori, by Jen Fleissner
Tori Amos is the first female pop star one could imagine attending a Star Trek convention It's commonplace to describe Amos as unearthing women's dirty secrets; foremost among them, to my mind, is that the timid administrative assistant in the cubicle next to yours might be a closet Klingon. Amos, superstar and fantasy fan (she references not only Star Trek but the Sandman comics, to the degree that that artist Neil Gaiman has modeled the character Delirium after her), is also supposed to be our most "honest" and "confessional" pop performer. The same critics who profess themselves thrilled at how nakedly *personal* Amos is tend to deplore the inscrutability of many of her lyrics. Plenty of folks who eschew standard pop sentiments earn such critiques, but the fact is, Amos's lyrics often *are* inscrutable--far more so than, say, the elliptical fragments of fellow arty girls Kristin Hersh or Kate Bush. That's precisely because they are truly personal: filled no simply with tantalizing suggestions awaiting the patient listener's decoding but with specific names, whole litanies of them, that can never mean anything to anyone but Amos herself (and, presumably, the real or imagined people to whome those names belong).
Listeners' distress at this fact proves we aren't actually asking for the unfiltered dregs of someone's consciousness when we deamand "honesty" and "intimacy" from pop singers. Those traits, like any others, imply generic norms, of which Amos most eloquently demonstrated her own mastery on 1991's breakthrough _Little Earthquakes_. Songs like "Silent All These Years" and CD-booklet photographs that pictured Amos escaping from a box and opening her mouth evoked a popular sense of the "inner self" struggling to break free from the masks and roles it has been forced against its own instincts to assume. That the inner self might possess it own even stranger assortment of personae is not something American audiences have generally wanted to hear.
Amos began to suggest as much on 1994's _Under the Pink_. But her increasingly privatized sentiments were expressed in musical settings that retained a reassuring intimacy between performer and listener: the majority featured Amos's quiet voice and piano, augmented at most by a wash of strings. Pictured standing atop a fuzzy white, sphere, Amos looked the picture of the New Age moon worshipper even as she claimed to be exploring women's betrayals of each other in songs like "Cornflake Girl," which divided the female population into conformist cornflakes and protesting raisins. The message of rage and conflict only really came across once, in the startling "The Waitress," with its chorus of "I believe in peace-- BITCH!" and atonal, galumphing orchestration.
Yet "The Waitress," more than any other song on _Under the Pink_, prefigures _Boys for Pele_'s sound and vision. The sweet Tori-and-her-piano ballads are nearly gone. They've been restricted mostly to songs about childhood, which gives their simplicity more of a context. Those songs--"Horses," "Marianne," "Not the Red Baron"--are also where the lists of mysterious names now get concentrated. It's as if their touching innocence and hopeless privacy have been cordoned off a bit, so Amos can get on with tougher questions. She leaves them with a tender farewell just as she does girlhood friend "Marianne," a consumate cornflake girl who, it seems, couldn't help winding up a victim: "she could outrun the fastest slug/. . . Marianne/quickest girl in the frying pan."
For Amos herself, it's into the fire. While Amos continues to throw darts at father figures claiming privileged access to the heavesn--this time around we find out that Jesus was a girl--those indictments have developed a streak of self-implication that renders them more complex. "Father Lucifer," "Hey Jupiter," and "Doughnut Song" (and maybe "Putting the Damage On") all address a patriarchal ex-lover, in terms similar enough to suggest the character in the same throughout, shape-shifting only slightly from Lucifer to Jupiter to the man in "Doughnut Song" who, with his new wife, gets to be a sun with a "devoted satellite." Amos has said that a major theme of _Pele_ is the problem of women 'stealing men's fire,' and here that seems to be figured in that image of woman as moon. Tori's less convinced that the moon's worth worshipping this time around, even if the "doughnut" image does cleverly suggest the real stuff's at the periphery, with a big zero inside. A key shift might be Amos's recognition that her frustration with these men isn't simply repulsion at their "patriarchal" ignorance; it's that *she* wants to attain those celestial heights. Hence, she addresses herself as frequently as she does the guys in these songs; there's also a new, heightened theatricality. Amos has employed her piano for sly, Kurt Weill-like marches before--and does so again on "Mr Zebra"--but these numbers are less obviously ironic than her previous flings with the show tune. They come off more like torch songs, becautiful melodies that dare you to guess the difference between anguish and artifice.
While the refined craft of these tracks is exciting, Amos really runs amok when she returns to earth to plumb the realms where women, shut out of the sky, have traditionally been confined. If you can get past the awful title and Valley Girl diction ("I need a big loan/from the girl zone") in the first single, "Caught A Lite Sneeze," you'll hear something new for Tori behind the drum machine, itself confined to two tracks on the record. It's a harpsichord, amplified and sounding like the meanest instrument on the block, and making thunderous appearances in *Boys for Pele*'s most thrilling songs. Amos's coup is to hear in the harpsichord's, well, baroque melding of the ornate and the primitive (it mightbe the banjo to the piano's guitar) precisely the duality she wants to capture. It's exemplified by her native South, where swampy sexuality, rage, and fear seethe under a polite veneer of religion and the white dresses of cornflake belles. Songs like the amazing "Professional Widow" get at it all simultaneously: Amos growls and wails and mockingly mimics her own sweetly singing former self; the harpsichord buzzes and bangs; and the incredible rhythm section of ex-Meter George Porter Jr. on bass and African drummer Manu Katche--who should really share star billing on this record-- heaves like Pussy Galore doing the Watusi with Handel. Meanwhile Amos's lyrics are going off in a song whose title hints at the murder of men (a theme that runs rather disquietingly through the record). "In the Springtime of His Voodoo" is another stunner: Amos actually *scats* in some of these songs, before beginning to murmur, "Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona and I'm quite sure I'm in the wrong song . . ." (Given the homicidal undertones, any guy sighting Tori in a flatbed Ford might be advised to run like hell.) "Voodoo" is surely the only rock 'n' roll song extant to mix bluesy Southern ambience with commands to Mr. Sulu to reach warp speed.
So what's that *Star Trek* stuff about, anyway? Outer space is, mostmundanely, a way to talk about "elsewhere"--but that fact gains new meaning on a record that wonders how women, linked to the soiled, the animal, can escape a duality that leaves the heavens to the fathers. *Pele*'s sleeve pictures both spheres--sky and clouds; earthy Tori suckling a pig, or on all fours on a muddied mattress--along with a third: fire. In two photos, her piano's in flames, which is to say it might be Pele, consuming boys. On the cover, too, Amos holds a gun, threatening further fireworks; there's a rooster strung up beside her, which might make you remember the "chicken" who played a prostitute in the song "Blood Roses." So, yes, she's mad enough to kill. As is the heroine of "Twinkle," who's hiding from the law in an abbey. But the point of that song isn't, finally, earthly doings; it's the rather egalitarian-- even New Age--sentiment that the stars can connect us, and, specifically, can connect women.
The fantasy of outer space as a place where arrangements might be different, where weirdos and gender outlaws might have a chance is certainly celebrated by *Star Trek*'s female fans, but it's also part of the rock tradition: think of Bowie, and then note how Amos melodically quotes "Moonage Daydream" in the chorus to "Doughnut Song." Confessions as theater, or vice versa--it's been done before, even if the current boosters of pop "Honesty" tend to deny any connection, preferring Alanis Morissette to, say, PJ Harvey. What they'll make of this version of Tori Amos is anyone's guess, but by "Twinkle," *Boys for Pele*'s finale, she's in a new space altogether. She's managed to plug her weirdest fantasies into a broader community, in which all the universe has become the girl zone.
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