A Journal Of The Dark Arts
To call Unrepentant Geraldines a return to form is to miss the point of what Tori Amos is all about. Yes, it is the most piano and vocally driven of her recent output, she’s been working with a band since From The Choirgirl Hotel, and because of it, will automatically recall her holy trinity of early records: Little Earthquakes, Under The Pink and Boys For Pele. But as a number of reviews have already mentioned, it’s unrealistic and slightly dangerous to want a career artist to return to their roots, to what made them famous in the first place. Let us remember, it has now been 22 years since Tori’s maiden voyage (not counting Y Kant Tori Read. I’m sure she’d want it that way.), Little Earthquakes, and anybody who’s making the same music at 50 as they were in their 20s has problems, possibly clinical ones.
At this point, Tori’s been married for 16 years, and her daughter Natashya, who appears on this record, is now 13. Her life is bound to be far different than the struggles of yr 20s, when yr striving for recognition, to master yr craft and prove yrself.
So when critics claim that this is the first ‘real’ Tori album in years, completely disregarding concept records, song cycles, orchestral re-interpretations of her early works, and even a musical that debuted in England last year, it narrows the scope of who this woman is, and what her artistic ambitions are.
Tori Amos’ most obvious spiritual ancestor was Kate Bush; in the early days it was impossible to read a review that didn’t mention this corollary, openly acknowledged by Tori herself. Amos was the inheritor of Bush’s high-fantasy conceptual art rock. She was never ONLY a confessional, piano virtuoso singer/songwriter.
Most of the 2000s found Tori Amos playing with characters and concepts; from the covers record Strange Little Girls to the “sonic novel” Scarlet’s Walk, and while the concepts were interesting, they lacked the punch and immediacy of those early records, partially due to increasing reliance on a backing band and studio production, which sort of muffled Tori’s personality.
Thankfully, Unrepentant Geraldines straddles the gap, and brings the best of both worlds. There are characters and concepts, some high-faery whimsy (“Maids Of Elfen-mere”, “Selkie”), which is tempered by personal revelations (the rumination of long-term relationship of “Wild Way”, a conversation between mother and daughter of “Promise”), as well as classic reflections on politics and religion, two endless topics for this minister’s daughter (“America”, “Unrepentant Geraldines”, respectively).
What we’re left with is a record that is both personal AND political, fantastic AND down-to-Earth.
Tori examines another favorite topic, womanhood and femininity, most specifically on “16 Shades Of Blue”, where she examines the double standards of aging with artists. Men get better with age, more handsome, distinguished, while women either completely disappear or attempt to freeze time with Botox and plastic surgery. Look around for an older female newscaster, if you have any doubts of this. When she sings “see over there at 33 she fears she’ll lose her job/because they hear the ticking of her clock/at only 15 I said 15, they say her future’s bleak/she should have started this at 3.” all of our hearts slowly tear into pieces. This is something most men simply don’t have to think about, and as such, it often doesn’t even occur to them. Imagine only being viable ’til yr early 30s. And of course, in this youth driven, oversaturated culture, with our auteurs getting younger and younger, it’s easy for many to relate to this. If only i’d had more life before the singularity, if only i’d had more time to practice, before the world imploded.
But Tori reminds us to keep going, to be ourselves, wherever we are in life, and to do the best of our abilities. To express our world view, to hone our chops, and try and make something honest and pure.
Of course, too many have read into this record as merely a sociological commentary, while utterly neglecting the main thing: the music itself.
Because, questionable concepts and quirky experimental tangents aside, almost any of Tori’s records are worth it for a nanosecond of her piano playing. Some have heralded Unrepentant Geraldines as a return to Pop for the songwriter, where a number of the instrumental passages, like the rippling bassnotes of “America” or the ballads of “Wild Day” or “Weatherman” sound like classical piano, could be outtakes from Schumann or Debussy, if stripped of lyrics. She could’ve been a Daniel Barenboim, had she chosen to go that route, but instead chose to delve into psychedelic art rock, and write songs. And it’s a good thing she did, too, as Tori Amos is an exceptional songwriter, something many people also forget.
There is sometimes a tendency, with critics, to only consider the new, and only consider innovation and novelty. This completely overlooks the fact that every musician starts off with a blank piece of paper and an idea: some chords, some words, and then go! Each song is it’s own universe, with its own rules and requirements. Every time. It’s a weird combination of jigsaw puzzle and being a medium, snatching something from the air, and trying yr best to get it down.
And that is the last noteworthy thing about Unrepentant Geraldines; a number of these songs COULDN’T have appeared on an early Tori record; the guitar driven shuffle-n-strum of “Trouble’s Lament”, which one critic dismissed as Americana, as if that weren’t allowed, or the celtic twilight fairy tale of “Wedding Day”, with it’s hawklike flute and tasteful flicks of Fender Rhodes. This shows Tori pushing things forward, still trying, stil experimenting, not succumbing to self-parody, just getting on with it, and writing songs.
And while this expanded tool kit, with more kinds of songs being available because of them, it also runs a risk, as sometimes the additional instruments sound as if they were stapled on top of the piano, sounding a bit flat and airless, compared to the lushness of piano and voice. Tori’s been recording and producing all her own music, with the assistance of husband Mark Hawley, who provides the guitars on the album, under the name Mac Aladdin, and there seems to be a lack of bigness and sparkle of the first couple of Tori records. There’s also some questionable sound selections, most notably the electronic flourishes on “16 Shades Of Blue”, which err towards ’90s electronica presets and sound kind of flat and squashed and could almost be a deal breaker, if not for the fact that each sound and detail is so meticulously placed, like the bomb dropping sound on the line “drop a verbal bomb”, or the way her voice fades to lo-fi grit with the line “but my cables they are surging/almost over/overloading” or the ticking of a clock, or the sarcastic hum of a kazoo. It is this level of detail, this coming together of production and songwriting, that are Tori’s saving graces, showing that she’s always got loads of ideas, and is willing to do whatever’s necessary to bring them to light.
The last interesting thing i noticed with Unrepentant Gerlandines was “Promises”, her duet with her daughter Tosh. Girl’s got a lovely set of pipes, and sounds a lot like her mama, which allows us to hear a time-lapsed view of the last 22 years, as the website Wondering Sound puts it “latter-day R&B cadences and adlibbed melisma, like maybe in another world Tash would have a song on the Divergent soundtrack.” That simply hadn’t penetrated the mainstream, when Tori first hit the scene, and it just goes to show how cultures have run together, how we’ve all gotten funkier and more soulful, in the last 2 decades, and occupies an intersection of the past and the future, giving us some perspective on where we’ve come from, and how far. It also goes to show how you’ve got to listen to and try and understand as many different cultures and styles of music as possible, when listening to, and writing about music. Every style’s got it’s own rules, it’s own rules, and must be judged accordingly.
So Unrepentant Geraldines is not a return to form, but an extension of the form Tori set in motion in 1992: art, whimsy, fantasy, confessional and satire, over a foundation of glistening classical gorgeousness, like looking down on a rolling thunderstorm or turbulent sea. Her’s is an inquisitive mind, an experimenter’s instinct, never resting on her laurels, growing complacent, or relying on what people think of her.
I haven’t been listening to Tori Amos for the past few years, although i used to all the time, and i have greatly enjoyed delving into the mythology of Unrepentant Geraldines. It’s like running into an old and trusted friend, who turns out to still be extraordinary. Got me in the mood to go read some fairy tales and go wander in the hillside.