Tori Amos – Unrepentant Geraldines (Album Review)

ToriAmos-UnrepentantGeraldinesIf you had to sum up Tori Amos in a single word, “unrepentant” wouldn’t be a bad choice. The religious connotations of repentance give the term a particularly sharp relevance when it comes to a songwriter and performer for whom power structures of all kinds have been fruitful targets. Amos has spent the better part of twenty-five years turning her gaze and her famous piano prowess outward, filleting men, women, and institutions of all stripes and creeds for whom the different forms of power represent an opportunity to betray, control, and delude.

If you are unfamiliar with Amos’s work, this might sound like a recipe for stridence, a veritable “shrieking harpy” rattling around in her madwoman’s attic, and that might have proved true had Amos not, from the start, twinned her exterior concerns with her misgivings about her own misuse of power, her own destructive tendencies and self deceptions.  In a society where a woman’s voice has to be louder than ten men to get equal recognition, Amos lashed out at herself as much as at external forces, sometimes in the same breath.  She has written and sung about rape, miscarriage, shame, loss, sex, death, and betrayal without flinching, when few artists have dared to do the same, in the same point-blank terms. What could be more unrepentant than that?

Perhaps that’s why Unrepentant Geraldines is such a fitting title for Amos’s new studio record, her first of completely original material in five years. She’s traversed other musical worlds in the interim —an orchestral retrospective, a classical song cycle commissioned by Deustche Grammaphon, and most strikingly, the fairy-tale musical The Light Princess in collaboration with Samuel Adamson for the National Theatre in London— but this new album both hearkens back to what drew people to Tori Amos in the first place and also builds upon this new legacy.

Unrepentant Geraldine‘s deeply personal lyrics, mixed with a musical palette that swings from forlorn balladry to demented whimsy and back again is no less a formula that can be used to describe her most seminal records such as Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, and while Geraldines has a different sound in some ways than those deeply organic records— cleaner, more studied, more digital —it feels very much like a return to those musical ideas, ideas for which she never made an excuse at the time and, seemingly, is in no hurry to make excuses for now.  Nor should she; the new record is certainly her most emotionally resonant and compositionally creative work in over a decade, signaling a reinvigoration of the musical energy that first captivated her fans (and divided her critics).

Geraldines may be a return to form, but it takes a few songs before it really hits its stride. The first four songs are uneven in quality, and at times feel forced in their folkiness, which is betrayed by transparent studio production that apes Americana rather than invokes.

The exception is first single “Trouble’s Lament,” which dresses its southern Gothic fable of danger, Satan, and women on the run in folk tinged with shadow rather than preciousness, approximating something between Emmylou Harris and radio-friendly Neko Case. Amos’s piano work here weaves in and out of guitar and brushed drums, and the resulting combination tends to accentuate the song’s atmosphere; it sounds like driving down a deserted rural backroad at dusk, keeping one eye on the treeline while racing, dogged but not defeated, into the night. Transgressive women and flirtation with the dark side have always been in the forefront of Amos’s thematic concerns, but “Lament” lends these ideas a mythic, Appalachian weight.

“Weatherman,” the fifth track, is so elliptically beautiful in sound and word that it is the first fully realized announcement of Amos’ masterful hand at composition and emotional resonance on the album. Armed with just her voice and piano, she sings of a man staring out over the landscape, seeing his departed wife recreated in the dressing and undressing of the seasons.  The idea could have devolved into New Age-y platitudes, but Amos strikes the perfect balance between poetry and lyrical restraint. The words are carefully chosen, and passionately sung.

Gladly, “Weatherman” is not an anomaly on this record, preceded though it is by weaker and lazily-produced songs. Its concluding bars launch directly into one of the record’s centerpieces: “16 Shades of Blue,” a track that reveals some of her most experimental (and unconventional) production choices. Over a lumbering, insistent progression of hard chords, Amos sings explicitly about aging, which could give way into navel-gazing treacle but instead yields an unusual, evocative song that touches on fears of mortality dressed in a sexy, menacing skin.

“16 Shades Of Blue” confronts rather than shies away, and in doing so also demonstrates a type of insight she’s shied away from for the last ten years as she’s wrapped her songs and albums so heavily in overwrought concepts. It achieves the effect that Amos’s best songs have always attained: by presenting something deeply personal and confessional about her own anxieties and anger and embracing the uncomfortable, she hounds down that elusive quarry of a creative person… the universal.

There are a few more missteps immediately after. Ren Faire interlude “Maids of Elfen-Mere” is too on the nose to be interesting. “Promise” is a gospel-infused pop duet with Amos’s daughter Natashya, whose voice is strikingly soulful and textured for such a young girl but whose presence can’t mask the superficial lyrics. “Giant’s Rolling Pin,” in which Amos seems to be attempting to make some kind of relevant commentary on intelligence scandals and taxation debates, unfolds with a self-aware carnival-esque orchestral silliness, but the feeble, cutesy socialistic metaphors comes across as forced.

Fortunately, the record’s impeccable back half capitalizes on Amos’ electric, zany, passionate side. On the experimental side, “Rose Dover” comes in as a patchwork monster of a tune that takes the dichotomy of Amos’s music—forlorn balladry, demented whimsy, etc.—and packs it into a single song where she sings, ostensibly to a daughter figure, about not letting adolescence and adulthood diminish her capacity for wonder. It’s a strange song, but so determinedly and specifically strange it feels nothing less than organic, as if the song, with shifts at all, burst out of Amos in one inspired gush.

Similarly challenging is the record’s title track. Amos covers familiar lyrical territory here—the betrayal of patriarchy and religion when it comes to safeguarding the emotional and physical well-being of women—but the song is restless. A downbeat organ groove powers the verses, a punk drum line propels the chorus, and a piano-centric post-chorus reverberates with the echoing atmospherics of Amos’s own “Little Earthquakes.” Then, as if out of fuel, “Unrepentant Geraldines” drops out all other instrumentation and finishes with a solo piano outro, one of the record’s most affecting and evocative moments.

The shifts are surprising on first listen, novel on a second and third, but repeated listens reveal that, far from being compositional tricks to shore up underdeveloped musical ideas, the changes feel organic, much like on “Rose Dover” and it must be said, on some of the most famous songs in Amos’ career.  Her song structures have always been bordering on unorthodox, and sometimes downright bizarre, but her performances and lyrics tend to pin down her freewheeling musicality and give it substance and an internal logic. Just so with these two songs.

“Oysters” is a piano-only track that features a delicate but instantly-memorable riff that plays against lyrics about losing sight of one’s self and goals, and the pain of wrenching your way back onto the “right” path. It’s such an emotional song, sung and played with alternating ferocity and sadness, that even in a spot on a record where filler is de rigueur, it shines out like a beacon, and in fact is Unrepentant Geraldine’s highlight. It also signals Amos’ strength in crafting powerful and active images that evoke an emotion too complex and layered to possess a name. “So then, I’m gonna turn oysters in the sand,” she sings, “cause I’m working my way back to me again.” Once again, the intensely personal leads to a universally-engaging sentiment.

It is ultimately Amos herself, though, who makes the biggest impression on Unrepentant Geraldines. Mediocre songs can often be rescued (and have been, across the centuries) by on-record charisma. Over the last ten years, Amos has often sounded lost, hazy, or depthless– a confusing divergence, considering she’s made a name for herself singing with such an un-self conscious intensity that it drew wounded and confused souls to her songs as much as it made her an easy target for parody. There’s a depth of feeling in these songs that indicates a return to that fearless songwriter from the 90s. Sure, there are still some definite missteps, but even the weaker tracks are buoyed by the sheer magnitude of Amos’s conviction.

If the lyric from “Oysters” of “working my way back to me again” was a goal and creative impetus for this project, one can say without reservation—imperfect as the record is—that Tori Amos has succeeded.

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2 Responses

  1. Strangely enough I mostly agree with this review, and I usually don’t agree with Tori album reviews. This album was fantastic, the missteps in my opinion were Wedding Day, Maids of Elfen-Mere, and not turning Promise into a very dark, tragic soulful song instead of staying all sunshine-and-daisies. There are a few points where I can hear just the slightest shifts in the chord progression fixing the song by just embracing some intensity. I’m surprised the original review didn’t mention Selkie or Invisible Boy which are both great too, and seem to be some of the favorites of most fans (though Oysters is still my favorite!) Anyone who likes the sound of this album shouldn’t miss the B-side Forest of Glass, which is right up there with Oysters!

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