Release Date: Sep 8, 2017
Record label: Decca
Genre(s): Adult Contemporary, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Contemporary Singer/Songwriter
What you’re about to read is a positive review of Tori Amos’ latest album Native Invader. It’s the first time since her last masterpiece, Scarlet’s Walk that you'll have read one like this. But I’m delighted to say: it’s happening again. Tori Amos is well and truly back on her bullshit. What I’m reviewing is a work of genius, and should as any work of genius, be treated critically and thoughtfully - which I have. But I can’t do so without some preamble first. .
Few artists are as deft as Tori Amos at writing about the ways people process pain. In these times of national trauma, then, a new LP from her feels uniquely urgent. Amos confronts the Trump era most effectively with "Broken Arrow" and "Up the Creek," darkly funky protests against white supremacy and climate ignorance. Elsewhere, she rolls through psychedelia ("Wildwood"), chilled-out trip-hop ("Wings") and her trademark passionate piano ballads ("Bang," "Mary's Eyes"), scattering political allusions like seed pearls.
It’s always hard to know what to expect with a new Tori Amos album. Early in her solo career, label executives attempted to neatly pigeonhole her as the “girl with a piano”—perhaps a female corollary to Elton John, they mused. Over her long and resilient tenure, though, Amos has patently refused to conform to the expectations imposed on her.
Amos set Native Invader – her 15th studio album – in motion in the summer of 2016, when she set off on a road trip through the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, in search of the stories and songlines of her mother’s family, who originated from the area. Then, shortly after returning, two seismic events forced the record off course; the unraveling struggles highlighted and amplified by the US election, followed by a shock closer to home – in January this year, Amos’ mother suffered a severe stroke, leaving her unable to speak. It was clear that Amos needed to adapt her approach..
On June 28, 1996, Tori Amos performed to a sold-out Greek Theatre in Los Angeles months after the release of her third album, Boys for Pele. To have been lucky enough to occupy space in the nosebleeds of that theatre, listening to Amos perform evergreen songs like .
For much of Tori Amos’ solo career, the piano-thrashing composer and singer has navigated the porous membrane between the personal and the political—the starkly searing depiction of sexual assault “Me and a Gun,” her waking-nightmare flip of Eminem’s murder lullaby “97 Bonnie and Clyde,” the Trail of Tears eulogy “Scarlet’s Walk. ” On her heady, fever-dreamy 15th album Native Invader, Amos adds a third element, bringing in the increasingly strip-mined Earth as both imperiled muse and guiding light. The self, the ever-more-chaotic agora, and the physical world triangulate in a way that allows Amos to take all of them on at once, and to create a despairingly poetic, chillingly vital album that channels its depictions of humanity’s horrors through intricately arranged songs.
There are two ways an artist can address a crisis: by smearing the gory details on thick or blowing smoke into the air around it. The 2016 election has inspired plenty of music, from the sarcastic (Todd Rundgren’s “Tin Foil Hat”) to the obnoxious (Juliana Hatfield’s Pussycat album). But, it’s Tori Amos’ Native Invader that finds the space between, addressing trauma both personal and political while maintaining the psychic distance necessary to create an album that can withstand the passage of the election cycle. At first listen, Native Invader feels like a collection of singles and B-sides.
Back in 1994, Q Magazine ran a cover feature – entitled ‘Hips, Lips, Tits, Power’ – showcasing a holy triumvirate of PJ Harvey, Björk and Tori Amos. Over 20 years later, the trio are still going strong, although it’s the former two artists who seem to get the music industry all a-quiver with each new release; a new Amos album just seems to be par for the course. It seems a bit unfair really, when Amos could easily lay claim to be just as influential as her peers.
Before we get into the meat of this review, some background into my highly personal, emotional investment in the career of Tori Amos. Consider yourselves prewarned: this shit’s about to get self-indulgent. I am in no way exaggerating when I say that, as a socially awkward, acne-riddled, 13-year-old boy, who attended a single sex school, discovering Tori Amos was a formative experience. At the time, I was heavily into Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and Tool; the holy trinity of pretentious white boy angst.
Tori Amos’s latest record is inspired by her mother’s ailing health and a sense of discontent at US society under Donald Trump (on Up the Creek she speaks of fighting against those “climate blind” with a “militia of the mind”, a far from oblique reference to a certain president’s fake news agenda). Across its 15 tracks, there are moments of greatness: Reindeer King is a swelling piano ballad about grief that boasts an ambient underside, while the aforementioned Up the Creek fuses a countryfied guitar loop with ominous strings, electro beats and backing vocals from Amos’s teenage daughter, Tash, to create a multifaceted soundscape..
Whether reclaiming her sexual agency from both the Protestant church and the man who raped her or renegotiating her womanhood in the wake of a miscarriage, Tori Amos.
An album featuring nature, politics and chariots pulled by cats can mean only one thing – the ever-prolific Tori Amos has returned. ‘Native Invader’ marks her 15th studio output and once more she has provided a treasure trove of meaning for fans to unearth and enjoy. The only question is, how much does this translate beyond the faithful, or those possessing a degree in folklore or anthropology? Let’s get stuck in. Gifted with first class musicianship and a voice that could melt a Republican’s heart, a certain quality is always a given when any new Amos material drops.