“Music more than anything else is what keeps me on this planet,” wrote Tori Amos in Piece by Piece. “I don’t know if in another life I would be given music. So I’m going to create with it as much as I can.” If there’s one thing we know for sure about Amos by now it’s that that impulse to create is pretty much insatiable. It’s been only a few months since the (all-too-premature) final performance of her “edible, delectable” first musical theatre project The Light Princess at the National Theatre (a.k.a. what September 2013 – February 2014 was ALL ABOUT for some of us). And already Amos is back again with a new record, Unrepentant Geraldines (her 14th studio album, no less), and an 80-city tour underway. (Hilariously, one recent commentator actually had the abject gall to suggest that it must be the announcement of a few gigs by notorious lazy-bones (sorry: perfectionist) Kate Bush that have got Amos’s current creative juices flowing.) I had the pleasure of seeing Amos’s London stop at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday and wanted to record some impressions of both the new album and the concert here.
If the immersive intricacies of The Light Princess score very much bore the influence of Amos’s classically-orientated work for Deutsche Grammophon - more the dynamic Night of Hunters than the rather underwhelming Gold Dust - then Unrepentant Geraldines has been widely heralded as a return to the “classic” Amos chamber pop of yore. It’s certainly evident that, having recorded and toured with a quartet and an orchestra and collaborated with so many folks on TLP, Amos is keen to get back to basics on the new record which she’s presented as an album of “secret songs” composed during the development of her other ambitious projects. The resulting album is, at base, a family thing, with Amos’s ever-inventive keyboard-work nestling snugly around husband Mark Hawley’s guitar-playing, and her regular band-mates Jon Evans and Matt Chamberlain absent from the scene. Following her great appearances as the shape-shifting instructress “Anabelle” on Night of Hunters there’s also another vocal assist from Amos and Hawley’s daughter Tash, on the corny yet irresistible duet anthem of mutual support “Promise.” In addition, the album comes without the conceptual befuddlements that appear to have alienated some people from Amos’s recent output and which have opened it to a lot of (I would argue, often very misguided) criticism.
I tend to be a fan of conceptual befuddlements, myself, and their absence may be part of the reason why Unrepentant Geraldines, for all its many strengths, doesn’t feel quite as cohesive as the Amos opuses I cherish most – Boys for Pele, Scarlet’s Walk, American Doll Posse, NoH – tend to. The idea of inspiration-by-visual-art that was initially announced as the album’s theme holds good only for a few scattered songs – the title track, the Cezanne-referencing “16 Shades of Blue” and the Rossetti-inspired “Maids of Elfin-Mere” amongst them – and nor does the record really boast the surprising, meaningful transitions and beautiful structural sense of Amos’s finest work.
The art idea isn’t sustained as a thematic through-line in terms of direct allusion, then. But, as often with Amos, it’s the songs themselves that paint indelible pictures. Pictures that project inwards into the human psyche and back into the world. Pictures that move backwards and forwards in time. Pictures that take us places. There’s delicate impressionism on “Oysters,” with its insistent, twinkling piano motif, its carving out of a space for renewal from past torments, its haunting falsetto vocal part, and Amos’s cherishable two-syllable enunciation of the word “pearl.” There’s broad-brush expressionism on “Rose Dover,” which suggests John and Paul collaborating with Queen on a lullaby. There’s goofy yet pointed political cartooning on the NSA/Snowden/spying jaunt “Giant’s Rolling Pin.” There are sketches, like the all-too-brief “Wild Way,” which finds Amos’s narrator sighing out her anger at her own emotional dependency on another person, though the tone of the song is more sad than seething.
And, of course, there are portraits: of a non-communicative couple trying to work themselves back to intimacy on the Celtic-tinged and Cocteau Twins-referencing “Wedding Day”; of a man fashioning a lost love from the elements on the exquisite, ethereal “Weatherman.” Meanwhile, the striking title track starts out with twitchy Police-ish guitars, ducks into a quintessentially Amos statement of intent (“I’m gonna free myself from your opinion… I’m gonna heal myself from your religion”) and closes as a drifting, gorgeous piano dirge featuring a Vicar’s wife who – yeah! - “plays the bass like a Messiah.” Musically, the album is full of such twists and turns in the arrangements: Beatles-esque bursts, folky flourishes, classical codas, Joni and Ricki Lee Jones-ish jonses. But the textures are warm, clear and embracing, with plenty of space in the mix. At times a further dose of Tori-testosterone wouldn’t go amiss (this kind, to be precise) but the beauty of the production is undeniable.
There are some lovely connections to earlier work, too. Lilting opener “America” suggests a footnote to Scarlet’s Walk (and “Angels”) as it gently probes complacency and apathy in the Obama-era Land of the Free. The twitchy, slightly hokey but inimitably catchy “16 Shades of Blue” serves as the final part in a trilogy connecting ADP’s “Secret Spell” and Abnormally Attracted To Sin’s “Curtain Call” as it highlights the challenges of the ageing process and the necessity of overcoming disempowering voices, Amos reaching the nub of the matter as she whips out: “There are those who say/I am now too old to play.” Ginger from “The Wrong Band” turns up on the brisk but burly first single “Trouble’s Lament” and it’s hard not to hear the voice of The Light Princess’s anti-lachrymose heroine Althea in her defiant: “There are no tears in my eyes.” And the achingly poignant closer “Invisible Boy” suggests a male companion piece to ADP’s great “Girl Disappearing” with a man mired in depression and contemplating retreat prompted back from the brink by some ghostly intervention, the song extending its loving hand of solace to the listener. (This is, by some considerable margin, Amos’s tenderest-ever album about men.) That’s where vital messages can come from, in Amos-land: from the sky, from the land, from a painting, from those long gone, from the whisper of “a scattering of birds.” Part of her great gift as an artist - evident in all the finest songs on Unrepentant Geraldines - is to translate them for us here.
At the Royal Albert Hall show, Amos played only two songs from the new album – a stately, chiming “Wild Way” and a meltingly gorgeous “Invisible Boy” which was dedicated “to all the wonderful boys” in the audience. She preferred, as is her wont, to take the crowd on a wide-ranging ride through her extensive catalogue. And what a ride it was: a cathartic emotional work-out with no lags and flags of pace and little let-up in the emotional intensity. This is Amos’s first solo tour since 2005 (though she’s done scattered solo shows in the interim; see here and here) and, positioned between Bösendorfer and keyboards, calling all the shots, her enjoyment of the freedom and spontaneity afforded by the set-up was palpable. As soon as she took to the stage and launched into a supremely pointed and marvellously pissed-off “Parasol” it was clear that she meant business. “This is our living room for the night,” she told the crowd. And so she made it, shrinking the venue to intimacy as she pounded out bruising low notes, bashed at the piano, slithered between keyboards and declaimed her extraordinary anthems of exorcism and empowerment in tones that shifted from tender croon to open-mouthed howl at will.
How she achieves these searing shifts between emotional states with so much apparent ease I still have no idea, but it remains one of the most arresting aspects of her artistry. B-Side gems such as “Purple People” and a shudderingly intense “Sugar” rubbed up against classics like “Winter” and “Crucify” (seldom fresher) while a trio of Scarlet’s Walk tracks – a savage “Pancake” (complete, wonderfully, with bridge from Neil Young’s “Ohio”), a biting “Taxi Ride,” and a sad, soulful (and singalong!) “A Sorta Fairytale” – were among the night’s highlights, alongside a frankly staggering “Little Earthquakes.” Given the CRAZY covers that Amos has been performing on the tour so far (from an inspired Miley Cyrus and Sinead O’Connor pairing to Moby and Metallica) the audience might be forgiven for mild disappointment that the familiar “Rattlesnakes” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” formed the Lizard Lounge section of this particular show. But the latter was delivered with such ferocious banshee intensity that any regrets were soon blown away. “Too old to play”? No way. At 50, Tori Amos’s drive, talent and fearlessness make her as vibrant and vital an artist as ever.
Unrepentant Geraldines is available on Mercury Classics. Tour dates, clips and, well, everything else you could possibly desire are at Undented.