Tori Amos: Total Badass
Tori Amos’ album Little Earthquakes changed my life. There have been wonderful moments in my life where music has done that: I’ve heard something and I knew my life was going to be different after that. Certain albums and artists have marked my life in that way: there’s a B.C./A.D. situation going on where my life was now relative to the moment I heard something — a seismic shift occurs when something really grabs me musically. In 1992, Little Earthquakes came out and that marks my B.T./A.T. delineation.
Some albums just jump through the speakers and the fact that this album was named for a natural disaster is apropos because Tori is an unbridled force of nature on this album. Tori Amos simply pops on this album whether she’s slamming her piano in raucous chaos in the bridge of “Precious Things” or she whispers a capella — haunting, stripped, naked, and raw as she does in “Me and Gun”. The quietest, most somber moments in the album have equal emotional impact as the highest decibal, highest energy moments: there’s no turning away when listening to this album — it consumes you while you consume it.
This album is a painting, a real genuine work of art. Tori uses every color and tone on the palette; every brush stroke is placed perfectly and purposefully to convey and elicit visceral impact. Very few albums are perfect from first to last track, and it is rare that an album is so well crafted that I have to listen front to back every time, but Little Earthquakes not only captured my full attention — it demanded it. It’s that rare album that isn’t just a collection of songs, but a masterpiece that flows front to back in a narrative. It’s not conceptually built in a narrative like Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which makes it even more interesting that the album can be seen as a whole, more of a mosaic of the artist’s life and thoughts rather than a linear storyline.
This will be the first in a series of posts where I put on the “cans” and do commentary on an album. I invite you to listen with me. I’m a musician by trade, but music is one of those wonderfully universal subjects where anyone can have a valid opinion. I know some non-musicians who love music, sometimes get a kick out of “hearing” what a musician might hear when they are listening to a song, and in that way, I would love to share my thoughts on this album and others.
Keep in mind, I do not in any way think my commentary is some kind of “expert” opinion because I’m a professional musician, it is just another subjective, albeit somewhat studied, opinion. It’s still an opinion, don’t let anyone tell you differently. While there are objective things to look at when it comes to the craft of music, and production, and song construction, at the end of the day, people like what they like, and I think that’s wonderful. I don’t begrudge anyone their taste in art or music and if you’re one of those that think being educated about the subject matter enhances the experience, then great. If you’re one of those who enjoys just listening and keeping the mystery of the art, that’s great too!
So here goes, listen along with me to the album Little Earthquakes and see if you hear what I hear:
Track 1: “Crucify”.
Here’s the music video. It’s not particularly interesting and actually a little silly. I hadn’t seen it before today. Unfortunate. I don’t know if it was for budgetary reasons or not (I certainly hope it wasn’t for artistic reasons!), but they really dropped the ball with an opportunity to make a wonderful mini-film with the rich themes and content in the song. Oh well, this is a musical analysis, not a video analysis. My recommendation is don’t bother with the video, just listen to the great music, I only put it up here in case you don’t actually have the album.
Tori loves to build tension in her songs and her production. She’s very effective at it. This song starts off with the first verse: sparse with her just her vocals, minimal instrumentation and just a percussive hi-hat and kick drum. Then a beautiful pre-chorus comes in and we hear for the first time her virtuosic piano arpeggiating as everything drops out but the kick drum. This pre-chorus is so beautiful and melodic (“I’ve been looking for a savior…”), it could serve as a chorus. There is nothing superfluous about her writing – the song is rich from front to back.
I don’t really consider Tori a “pop” artist, but she has the natural ability to make everything a “hook”. This song has a half dozen of them. By the time we get to the actual chorus (in two parts – again hook after hook) and the band fully kicks in, the minimalism of the verse and pre-chorus makes the full production of the chorus seem very large: background vocals, added percussion. The chorus as I mentioned is in two parts: part one (“why do we crucify ourselves) and part two (my heart’s sick of being in chains). Again, this is a testament to the richness of this song that there’s an A and a B chorus and both with distinct identities and focus, and yet they flow perfectly.
The chorus in this song is where we get the first indication that Tori Amos is really something special with her lyrical phrasing. There are many unique themes to Tori’s musical presentation and one of them that stands out to me is how she places notes and syllables vocally. Tori has her own vocal fingerprint where this is concerned, I’ve never heard an artist phrase like she does and that really separates the great ones. Quincy Jones said that’s how he could separate the great singers from just the good ones: where they placed their notes and how they phrased their syllables. I couldn’t agree more. I think this is one of the reasons I don’t really dig musicals and some theater singing, because the phrasing is usually stock and that simply isn’t as interesting to me.
Tori takes phrasing to its limits at the end of chorus A when she says “my heart’s sick of being in …” simply sounds like “my heart’s been in…” She “crams” all those syllables in that short segment, both melodically and percussively, which then allows Chorus B (“…chains” the end of the phrase and back end of the chorus) for her to run a wonderful melisma using only a single word that completes the lyric of the chorus. Two distinct and opposite approaches to phrasing separating the “two choruses”.
As great as that phrasing is, it’s probably more impressive in the verses (I will be coming back to the brilliance of her phrasing time and time again in this album). Most songwriters really can’t get too far away from couplets (or another simple rhyme scheme) because of the natural rhythm and phrasing that it inherently provides. It takes a shitload of extra creativity to be able to flow and rhythmically place lyrics that aren’t already contained in a stock, rhythmic pattern. This makes her lyric writing much richer because she can engage in a much more impressive narrative and/or stream of consciousness free flow of ideas. Her lyrics are unbounded by her ability to marry her musical phrasing with the poetry of the words.
Speaking of lyrics, let’s talk about the lyrics for a moment. As I said before, Tori is already more creative than most with her lyrics and phrasing, but she also has that wonderful ability to speak in her own unique voice. There is no fourth wall in her music, she is speaking 1st person and giving it to the listener raw. To what degree the narrative exactly reflects the artist is unimportant, the subject matter is profoundly intimate and delivered as not just window into the artist, but as an experience in a moment. It’s like the listener is not only in the room with Tori during her vignettes, but she is also allowing the listener inside her head, so much so that we don’t often know what’s real and what is created by her mind. The listener gets Tori’s inner narrative which goes well beyond the intimacy of just being an observer.
Let’s look at the first verse:
Every finger in the room is pointing at me
I want to spit in their faces then I get afraid of what that could bring
I got a bowling ball in my stomach I got a desert in my mouth
Figures that my courage would choose to sell out now
These are not the inner thoughts of a psychopath (although they could be!), this is the inner dialogue of anyone who has been uncomfortable in a social situation and feels judged. This sets the scene for the theme of the song: why do we feed each other’s most base inner thoughts? Why do we give each other the arsenal to feed and compound our own insecurities? Our inner self is devilish enough to provide self-loathing, knowing we have our own inner-dialogue to contend with, why would we possibly heap that pressure onto another human being with such overbearing criticism and judgment? Why do we crucify ourselves? Ultimately it’s a self-immolation in our mind, but the matches and fuel are given to us by society, moreover, religious society and its vicious self-loathing constructs.
She is asking this question while weaving in both literal and allegorical Christian allusions in the song. Religion will be a recurring theme for Tori. Specifically the outer, systematized, institutional religious persecution that is inherent in organized religion, resulting in the deeper, inner psychological persecution that results. Judgmental religion is rendered even more nefarious when it can control personal thoughts. Orwell knew about the destructive nature of institutions framing our language and our minds to create the horror of horrors: the institution not just being a part of our most intimate inner thoughts but actually manipulating them and controlling them to the full force of destroying any semblance of self.
With full knowledge that I may be projecting in emphasis of this religious-Orwellian theme, I’m certainly not making it up whole cloth. To some degree she equates religion with negative human emotions, “got enough guilt to start my own religion”. It definitely exists as a theme in Tori’s lyrics, but to what degree she is using religion allegorically to represent a mindfuck as opposed to religion actually being the instrument of mental torture, I leave that to each individual listener. I think in the song “Crucify” it’s a little bit of both: I think she is using religion generally (and the crucifixion story specifically) as the ultimate representation of abhorrent judgment working itself from the outside in. This religious institutional judgment (religious and institutional crucifixion of the masses): which then infects the populace — their fingers pointing in constant judgment (social crucifixion); which in turn leaves the individual no choice but to be in a continual state of self-judgment (self-crucifixion).
So the refrain “why do we crucify ourselves” is rhetorical. The answer is “we shouldn’t” — but we’re stuck. We want to hold on to the spiritual satisfaction we derive from comforting beliefs, but unfortunately we’re stuck with the negative elements that institutionalized religion brings. No fuzzy feelings without the crushing pressure of judgment. Is there good in religion and/or life that we have to suffer to achieve? Is it obtainable in this life, or are we suffering the misery of this existence, only to get salvation after earthly torture. When does the religious promise of salvation come in to relieve the pain?
The protagonist in the song is looking for a savior (looking for them often in the seediest of situations: “in dirty sheets/streets” yet more condemnation, this time through the lens of religion which says sex is not beautiful, but shameful and disgusting) who will release her from the bad elements of religion (salvation cannot possibly be won through religion and all the nastiness that it entails, can it?). So according to the song, you’re stuck with both, “I gotta have my suffering so I can have my cross” and “you’re just an empty cage girl if you kill the bird”. This last line reversing the quixotic spiritual quest of throwing out the bathwater and keeping the baby.
Back to the music. After the initial chorus (in 3 wonderful stages) the song strips back down to it’s most minimalistic form for the second verse. Again, this is a wonderful technique to build tension in a song: build it up musically, and then cut it immediately at its height for full dramatic effect and start over again. This song is a wonderful example of that and a technique that will be used to great effect throughout the album.
After the second chorus a beautiful, soaring bridge shows another excellent hallmark of a good songwriter: writing another movement to the song, that is different enough to change the dynamic of the song, but flows enough to be seamlessly implemented. There are many things about Tori’s songs that I find epic. I love “epic” in music and usually it comes in the form of long song that takes you in many directions musically and emotionally. Tori writes “epic” songs regardless of length. They are so layered and dense vocally, lyrically, musically, and from a production standpoint, that a tight, little 3 or 4 minute song is worthy of having epic status. Just listen to the drums in this song, they are completely minimalistic, and yet that reverb makes them huge sounding, bombastic and, yes… epic!
The song ends with a musical and lyrical refrain which is a staple in many of Tori’s songs. Again, because of her creativity, she is able to free-form these refrains and keep them from sounding repetitive and they are certainly miles from boring.
Okay, Part II later this week when hopefully you will enjoy the rest of the album with me. This initial listening exercise will be longer than most because I’m laying down a foundation of musical and production concepts so I’m putting in two parts. Besides, I broke my headphones — I told you this shit was powerful! I always recommend studio quality headphones when you’re getting down to serious listening of music. No earbuds or wimpy headphones, you need the real deal. They are worth the investment and make the listening experience a million times better. You’ll shell out a little for them, but they pay for themselves ten times over both in sonic and durable quality. Mine broke because I’m an idiot, not because they crapped out. I’d had mine for 20 years and they would have kept going easily another 20 if I hadn’t just sat on them.
Here’s a relatively inexpensive route to get into quality headphones and I think they sound great.
You can probably pick them up at Amazon or elsewhere for around $100.
To be continued…