“I’m working my way back / to me again,” Tori Amos sings on the haunting “Oysters”, an echo-drenched piano ballad so evocative of her early work that you might find yourself checking your Facebook feed to make sure you haven’t been time-warped back to 1994. It’s one of those rare moments in which an artist more than two decades on manages to recapture a bit of the bottled lightning that commanded our attention in the first place. “Did I somehow become you / without realizing” she ponders in a dialogue between past and present selves.
Unrepentant Geraldines -- its title so knowingly Tori it verges on parody -- finds Tori Amos delivering original songs, which isn't a common occurrence for her in the new millennium. Following on the heels of the interpretive 2012 set Gold Dust, it's the first collection of original material since 2011's Night of the Hunters, but it seems as if its roots stretch back even farther, as it is a bright, open collection, sometimes suggesting her early-'90s heyday but never pandering toward the past. There's a nice tension on this record, as Amos gives her hardcore fans what they want -- left turns tempered with introspection -- while also wooing the skeptics with melody and color, giving the record a bright, open feel that stands in contrast to the handsome solipsism that characterized many of her new millennial records.
"50 is the new black." So says Tori Amos on "16 Shades of Blue," but it's difficult to imagine the singer cares at all about what's hot or not. Not because she's always been hot — as in hot-blooded, as in intense — but because this is not an artist who chases trends. Do you remember when she was called "the new Kate Bush"? Probably not, because that was 21 years ago now, back when Under the Pink first came out and nobody quite knew how else to describe her and her fiery piano confessionals (or the difference between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano).
To call Unrepentant Geraldines the first real Tori Amos album in five years is to miss the point of Tori Amos. Sure, it’s the first album of pop songs she’s released since Abnormally Attracted to Sin in 2009, and in the interim she’s released a handful of heavily conceptual albums that subverted certain rock tropes. Midwinter Graces was Amos’ version of a holiday album, but with centuries-old hymns replacing the familiar chestnuts, and Night of Hunters, which built on variations of music by Bach, Debussy, Satie and Mendelssohn, could have worked as a parody of rock artists’ stage pretensions (Elvis Costello’s Il Sogno, for example, or Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio) had it not been really good.
With her last three albums, Tori Amos, who studied at the Peabody Conservatory Of Music as a child, has been revisiting her classical roots in various ways. Unrepentant Geraldines, her 14th studio album, is referred to as “chamber-pop” in the press blurb, which suggests the classical influence lingers on. With a smooth, olde worlde sound, appealing melodies and impressionistic imagery, the album, at best, conjures up affecting vignettes and, at worst – Giant’s Rolling Pin, about the NSA/Edward Snowden affair – borders on the twee.
The most striking aspect about Tori Amos’ newest record of original material (her 11th overall—not counting any cover albums, Christmas records, or “song cycles”) is that it isn’t easily lumped into the work she’s been producing as of late. She’s indicated on a few occasions that she came out of the past five years of working with orchestras, writing musicals, and singing Christmas songs with a new found re-invigoration for making music. However, Unrepentant Geraldines isn’t dripping with the excitement you would expect from a reinvigorated artist.
After three classically influenced albums and a foray into a musical based on a 19th-century fairytale, Tori Amos has finally returned to the voice and piano format that made her a huge star in the 1990s. Unrepentant Geraldines is a family affair – recorded at husband Mark Hawley's Cornwall studio, featuring a duet with 13-year-old daughter Natashya – which perhaps contributes to the personal, intimate feel. Amos has rarely sounded as vulnerable or exposed as she does on Invisible Boy or the lovely confessional Weatherman.
Tori Amos restarted the conversation about art and aging as a woman, and the results are illuminating. This debate surges frequently, but female singer-songwriters of Amos’s stature face it perhaps more than others. While men are often revered and considered ruggedly handsome as they grow older, women have to battle the loss of their beauty, and often with it, their fame.
Unrepentant Geraldines has been touted as Tori Amos's return to “contemporary pop” after a pair of more classically inclined releases and a stage musical in London, though that's a bit like calling Jonathan Glazer's willfully abstract Under the Skin a summer tent pole. If Amos ever satisfied the demands of anything resembling contemporary pop, she's left those days long behind. In recent years, the singer-songwriter has consistently flouted commercial expectations in ways that have made her work both exciting and, at times, unlistenable.
In the last 15 years, Tori Amos’ pop albums have gravitated toward two distinct categories: those where she utilizes elaborate characters and extended metaphors to illustrate her points, and those where she uses more straightforward, subjective inspirations for her lyrics. For fans, this has been somewhat frustrating, as Amos has always been a confessional commentator—especially at the intersection of the personal and political—and deriving emotional attachment from her intricate fictions has often been challenging. The engaging Unrepentant Geraldines, however, splits the difference between these categories perfectly—mainly because this time, Amos’ muse led her into a variety of deeply personal, vulnerable places.
Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines Unique artists that make a musical home in the fringes, those who have, by their instinctive weirdness, forged a singular path that almost willingly contradicts everything else going on in the world, really do have their work cut out for them. At least when it comes to playing the long game. David Bowie, Björk, Tom Waits and Tori Amos all sprint to mind, and while all have been wildly successful in their respective careers, all have gone through extended rough patches during which their art didn’t widely connect with the rabid fan bases they culled during stretches of unparalleled brilliance.
The "return to form" is a gigantic critical cliché; most of the time, it signifies wishful thinking and a wilful denial of the empirical evidence that in pop music, genius rarely lasts. When the magic is gone, it's generally gone for good: cut your losses and get out rather than hanging around parching yourself on a dried-out well of ideas. This has little to do with popularity: it applies equally to acts using empty nostalgia to continue riding high as to those who've fallen out of fashion.
Tori Amos has never been afraid to follow her muse and, in recent years, it has led her to Christmas music, classical music, and musical theater. Her fans will be glad to hear the muse has finally led Amos back to making the type of carefully crafted but pleasingly quirky pop music that helped make the singer-songwriter’s name in the ’90s with albums like “Little Earthquakes” and “From the Choirgirl Hotel. ” The 14 tracks on “Unrepentant Geraldines” traverse territory both intimate and global, with Amos setting her idiosyncratic lyrical sights and musical sensibiliites on everything from disintegrating love affairs to NSA surveillance.
“Pushin’ on, pushin’ on, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” Natalie Merchant sings on her self-titled new album, a set of dark, brave, thoughtful and serenely startling songs that is her first album in 13 years with her own lyrics. Ms. Merchant, 50, had million-selling albums in the ….
Tori Amos turned 50 last summer, and she’s not sorry. She’s not sorry for throwing her rage in the street during the 90’s, not sorry for framing her rage with obtuse concepts, and especially not sorry for continuing to ask the same questions about the roles of women in the Bible, in various other mythologies, and in the world at large. Examining how we wrestle with these ideas (or choose not to) is her stock-in-trade.