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The Boston Phoenix (US)
April 8-14, 2005
Tori Amos in song and otherwise
by Matt Ashare
BEEKEEPER: beneath the surface musical appeal of Amos's songs are references to terrorism, Gnosticism, Sylvia Plath, and orange knickers.
Depending upon who you read, Tori Amos's new The Beekeeper (Epic) either "floats by without stirring much interest" (Onion), has "very little tension and too much vocal masturbation going on" (popmatters.com), is "underwritten" and "underproduced" (rollingstone.com), or amounts to "her most down-to-Earth album in years" (New York Times). I could go on, quoting from reviews that would seem to be critiquing different albums. But nine albums into a career that began almost 15 years ago, with the release of Little Earthquakes (Atlantic), a bold debut that offered the autobiographical a cappella "Me and a Gun" as well as lyrics like "So you can make me come/That doesn't make you Jesus," Tori Amos has teamed up with a senior music critic to offer her own interpretation of Tori Amos in book form. It's called Tori Amos: Piece by Piece (Broadway Books), and if you haven't already essayed its labyrinthine passages, let's just say that's an amusingly simple title for a complex series of discussions between Amos and Ann Powers that's subtitled A Portrait of the Artist, Her Thoughts, Her Conversations. These conversations, which touch on enough Jungian archetypes to send Joseph Campbell running for cover and explore Gnosticism with a glee generally reserved for devotees of The Da Vinci Code, are interspersed with straightforward reflections by the people Amos has surrounded herself with over the years, from drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans, to lighting designer Dan Boland and security director Joel Hopkins.
Anyone hoping for an explication of The Beekeeper here would do better to consult the short biography at www.toriamos.com, where Amos reveals that she approached her previous album, 2002's Scarlet's Walk (Epic), "from the Native American part of my bloodline," only to return to the religion of her Methodist minister father on The Beekeeper "to address the severing that was happening in America itself..." Now those are concepts I can at least get my mind around. And I thought The Beekeeper was a reference to the Sylvia Plath poem "The Beekeeper's Daughter," from a series of what Plath enthusiasts have come to refer to as the "bee poems." (Plath was indeed the daughter of a beekeeper.)
Some of the other important touchstones that come into play on The Beekeeper, which is divided into six parts that Amos refers to as gardens in the larger "Garden of Original Sinsuality," are terrorism, orange knickers, a Saab automobile, Elaine Pagels's The Gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the entire Nag Hammadi library of ancient writings that was discovered in Egypt in 1945. So if you've analyzed Plath's poetry, changed the oil (or at least a flat tire) on a Saab, and seen the immensely silly documentary The Da Vinci Code Decoded, then you're all set. Reviewing, much less listening, to pop music shouldn't be this difficult. As Mick and Keith so famously noted, "It's only rock and roll..."
The good news is, it isn't all that difficult. Yes, Amos, who splits her time between Great Britain and the US, and grew up, as the book says, with both Native American spirituality and Methodist values, may enjoy consulting obscure sources in order to feed her muse. And as a classically trained pianist who first struck out on her own in LA fronting the hard-rock band Y Kant Tori Read, she has more than just rock and roll coursing through her musical veins. It's that combination that can lead her down obscure paths to precious constructs like "Original Sinsuality," one of The Beekeeper's more abstract piano-and-vocal-based arrangements. At the same time, "Witness," with its funky Hammond organ groove and bluesy cadences, seems to have more Marvin Gaye than Nag Hammadi in it. And in spite of its references to terrorism, "The Power of Orange Knickers" (which has Damien Rice on backing vocals) is a pleasant little pop song with a catchy vocal melody, a driving beat, and an alluring sexual undercurrent.
Amos doesn't like to talk about her songs, at least not in any straightforward way -- which may explain how she and Powers can carry on 350 pages of "conversations." Amos is more interested in what led her to write this song or that, and particularly the often cryptic lyrics. But when I reach her over the phone on her way to one of the final rehearsals for the "Original Sinsuality Tour," which hits the Orpheum this Tuesday, she does allow that "the cryptic ones might even be the ones that are the most personal. I also hope there's humor in what I do. But it doesn't always get through."
Like, orange knickers? "Well, I wanted to write a song about terrorists. It's a word that's been used and misused a lot in the last few years. Therefore, sometimes to emancipate a word, you have to undress it. And as I started to undress it, I found a lot of things there. And if you start exploring it, all the correlations and just the word associations, you might get certain images in your mind."
That seems simple enough: undress a terrorist and you might find something as amusing as a pair of orange knickers, right? But no, it's more complicated than that. "Orange is a color that intrigues me, not just because of Guantnamo Bay," she explains, referring to the orange prison uniforms inmates wear. "But William of Orange came over to Ireland, and you've got people over there who understand terrorism in a way that we don't. We're just learning about it because of what happened a few years ago to us. But the Irish and the British have been in this now for quite a long time. So, having lived in Ireland -- I have a house there, and I live in England and I live in America -- I see it from different perspectives. But I wanted to free up the word so that people can reclaim it and therefore won't just have a kneejerk reaction to it every time the terrorist button gets pushed -- so that you won't immediately get a picture in your mind of a guy in a turban every time the alert level goes from orange to amber. Instead, maybe you should get a picture in your mind of a guy with a suit. Or maybe it's a woman who's a teacher. Or your boss, who keeps coming onto you and embarrasses you every time you have your marketing meeting, because she wants you and you're just not into her. So she emasculates you in front of people. Now, that would be pretty invasive. And maybe that's your terrorist. I think it started when my daughter Tash was asking me, 'What's a terrorist?', because she heard the word on the news. So I tried to explain. Finally she looked at me and said, 'Mommy, you mean like the bully on the playground?' And I said, 'Yeah, that's what I mean, but that bully can be inside, too.' It can be anywhere."
I'm starting to understand why Amos doesn't like to talk about her songs. "Cornflake Girl" has always been one of my favorite Tori Amos songs, and not just because Jawbox do a great cover of it. There's something appealing about its undulating piano chordings and its open-ended chorus. When I found out the song had been inspired by an Alice Walker book that deals with female circumcision, The Temple of My Familiar, I felt I'd missed the point. "Well, it's not about that Alice Walker book," Amos says. "It's about female betrayal. And there's female betrayal within the Alice Walker book. I had my own things going on at the time that I was reading the book, and that's what the song came out of. It's no different from 'The Beekeeper's Daughter' by Sylvia Plath. The new album is not about that. But it's one ingredient in a soup that's the size of Australia."
Pop music certainly has a right to be as complex as a Plath poem, with internal references that might require research or, perhaps now that every artist has his or her own Web site, even footnotes. And that's what Piece by Piece amounts to. As Amos admits, "I don't think I talk about what the songs are about, ever. I think I give back story and I give symbolism. But what they're about can't be nailed down, because your take on them is as valid as mine. When I talk about a song, that's only my opinion. As a person, of course I have a relationship with songs. But I don't necessarily believe that that's what they're about. That may sound silly, but it's not if you really think about it."
In fact, you don't have to know anything about the Nag Hammadi texts to enjoy The Beekeeper. It may be pleasing to discover that behind the yearning of Tori's voice on "Parasol," the rolling piano chords of "Jamaica Inn," or the social critique of "Barons of Suburbia," there are archetypes and structures that tie one song to the next, and that there are deep thoughts buried in the hooks of "The Power of Orange Knickers." And the notion of a garden as a thematic backdrop for The Beekeeper may have been necessary for the creation of the individual songs on the album -- all 19 of them. In the end, though, the songs will stand or fall on their own merits. Even Amos seems to appreciate that as she puts in one last word about the album. "In Cornwall [where she owns a home], there's quite a strong tradition of beekeeping. We have our medicine men and medicine women that go back in our tradition in America. I would say the parallel to that kind of shaman in Cornwall would be the bee master or bee mistress..." Her voice trails off as she moves on to more immediate concerns. "On that note, I'm off to rehearsal so I don't fall on my face. You know, I wear high heels. And I could easily teeter and fall off. So I need a little more practice in my high heels before we start the tour."
Tori Amos performs this Tuesday, April 12, at the Orpheum Theatre, 1 Hamilton Place in Boston; call (617) 931-2000.
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