Nick Bollinger reviews a typically eccentric, sometimes spellbinding set from Tori Amos.
Tori Amos always seemed like an unusually bold proposition for a major label; eccentric, unpredictable, confrontational. But then at the time of her debut, Little Earthquakes, the majors had more than a few eccentrics to contend with. That’s twenty-five years ago, though, and they have now mostly purged their rosters of oddballs, replacing them with younger, more malleable talent. Yet remarkably 2017 finds Tori Amos still hanging in there.
Native Invader is the title of Tori Amos’s fifteenth album, and it’s evident right from the get go that both her talents and her eccentricities are intact. In fact, the opening track ‘Reindeer King’ is spellbinding, even if it is not immediately obvious what she’s on about.
What holds it all together though is a sustained musicality, whether it’s Amos alone at the piano, playing impressionistically with trip-hop textures or leading a traditional but classy rock combo. Her musicianship is the anchor that allows her to explore whatever mystic callings or ancient songlines she likes, without ever drifting beyond comprehension. And it’s the thing that, more than anything, has meant she has endured, with all her eccentricities, when so many others have not.
Read up on the backstory and you’ll learn that Amos’s mother Mary Ellen, now in her late 80s, suffered a debilitating stroke while Amos was writing this record. And several of the songs, including ‘Reindeer King’, are addressed to her, though as always Amos couches her subject matter in mythological terms. Which particular mythology the reindeer comes from is unclear, though both Scandinavia and Jupiter are invoked in the song. Most likely it’s a mythology of Amos’s own mind. But the combination of her piano and eerie atmospherics, and her vocal – like the whisperings of some ageless sprite – are as affecting as they have ever been.
Pain and suffering – other people’s and Amos’s own – have always been the drivers of her work, and they remain the thread that runs right through Native Invader. The focus of that pain swivels around a bit though. There are the songs in which she addresses her mother’s pain, and her own as she calls on pagan gods and a figure she eerily refers to as ‘the death midwife’ to intervene. There are other, more domestic scenarios, in which the suffering is the kind lovers can bring on each other.
And then there are the songs in which her attention turns to the pain of the planet. With an agitated, almost-prog string riff and that ancient chorus of ‘good lord willing and the creek don’t rise’, in ‘Up The Creek’ Amos makes a direct address on the subject of global warming, calling on ‘the militia of the mind’ to arm ‘against the climate blind’. It’s a strong piece, one of the album’s highlights.
But ‘Russia’, the other global action song here, is less effective; a solemn but platitudinous plea to the powers in Washington that confusingly asks questions about Stalin. In songs like this I find myself wishing Tori would stick to her pagan mysticism. But for most of Native Invader, politics and pantheism are pretty cunningly interlinked, and if that involves such baffling images as wise visiting bats or chariots pulled by cats I’m happy to go along for the ride.
Native Invader is available on Decca