Review Summary: An unfairly maligned near-masterpiece.
Considering that a lot of old, out-of-touch listeners won't shut up about it, I'd just like to wade in on the whole Tori Amos-Kate Bush thing by telling it from the perspective of somebody who's both relatively young, and a massive fan of both. I was even into Kate Bush first, and knew about the rip-off accusations before I'd heard anything by Amos that wasn't a terrible Armand Van Helden remix. When I borrowed some of her albums, I actually went into Little Earthquakes
and Strange Little Girls
expecting to hear something like Kate Bush. But you know what? 99% of the time, any close comparisons between the two are total bull***. That's the truth, from me to you. There's very little you can say about the pair of them that holds up to scrutiny.
The reason I mention that here is because this is one of the few occasions where you can make a useful compare-and-contrast move involving the two artists. Boys For Pele
is Tori Amos' fourth album (if we include her non-canonical debut Y Kant Tori Read?
, that is), while Kate Bush's fourth offering was The Dreaming
. Both albums were hugely experimental when compared to the albums that came before, and both were responsible for cementing the reputations of their respective writers as forward-thinking, challenging artists, while narrowing down their fanbase to a more selective, dedicated contingent. The contrast comes with the way both critics and music lovers outside either Tori or Kate's fanbases have come to view the two albums. The Dreaming
is seen as a brave, resounding success, and is frequently argued to be her best album. Boys For Pele
, however, is seen as unwieldy, unnecessarily kooky, and markedly inferior to Amos' earlier efforts.
The exact inverse is true.
Boys For Pele
was a departure for Tori Amos, there's no questioning that. While Little Earthquakes
never really removed itself from a voice and piano set-up (the a-capella "Me And A Gun" aside), and Under The Pink
only moved away from that in tentative steps, the first thing most listeners comment on with Boys For Pele
is the abundance of harpsichord on the likes of "Blood Roses", "Talula", and "Professional Widow", and the increasing use of electronics on the latter of those two and "Caught A Lite Sneeze". There's also a brass arrangement at the start of "Putting The Damage On". Tori's voice has changed too - her expressive range came on leaps and bounds here, with breathless yelps, fragile highs, sexually charged lows, and unexpected dynamic shifts all being introduced to her arsenal. With that, her piano playing has also diversified to include a strong Baroque influence; she's also learned how to make the most out of the spaces between notes, as the first half of the bewitching opener "Beauty Queen/Horses" will attest.
The result isn't actually as much of a departure as you've probably heard. There are still quite a few tracks here that would fit reasonably well onto Under The Pink
- "Father Lucifer", "Marianne", "Hey Jupiter", and "Twinkle" being the most obvious ones - and when it boils down to it, this is still an album written by a women sat at a keyboard (be that a harpsichord, a sampler, or a piano), and it feels like it. It's got a similar intimate, confessional feel to the two albums immediately preceding it, even if the lyrics are a little more coded and obtuse this time out. Really, there's nothing here that should put off any Tori Amos fan with even the tiniest slither of an open mind. That's especially true when you consider that a handful of the best songs that she's ever written reside within these 18 tracks.
"Beauty Queen/Horses" is a straight-up contender for Tori's best song. Beginning with a single piano chord repeated as if in slow motion, the song uncurls into the kind of soft, fluid piano arpeggios that defined tracks like "Winter" and "Pretty Good Year" - except here, they carry more gravitas than ever before. The near-desolate music and hauntingly insistent melody are purpose built for maximum effect as the lyrics leave phrases hanging in the air, phrases that can't help but draw you into their world - 'and maybe we'll make mother well', 'you say that your demons can't go there', and so on. It's completely bewitching. Don't be surprised to find yourself braced for a 5-star album after listening to this for the first time. In fact, you might still be bracing yourself by the time "Hey Jupiter" comes on, because the first half of this album is almost impeccable. "Father Lucifer" and "Mr. Zebra" are excellent character sketches, the (apparently) Courtney Love baiting "Professional Widow" (which Trent Reznor directly referenced in Nine Inch Nails' similarly brilliant "Star***ers Inc.") is what heavy metal might have sounded like 400 years ago, "Muhammad My Friend" is every bit as playful and amusing as the more famous "God", and both "Caught A Lite Sneeze" and "Hey Jupiter" could conceivably have been huge hits.
The second half of the album does let the side down after the delirious highs of the first half, although it's still home to some great moments in "Twinkle", "Putting The Damage On" and "Not The Red Baron". "Talula" is the main offender, because its pop ambitions are out of step with what surrounds it and it's not a good enough song at heart to survive that flaw. "In The Springtime of His Voodoo" is an interesting experiment with a piano riff and some musical ideas lifted from blues and jazz, but the lack of good melody still makes it feel like a weak point. "Way Down" and "Agent Orange", meanwhile, are nice enough but a little pointless on the whole.
Despite these flaws, Boys For Pele
is unique amongst Tori's lengthy albums in that the great songs vastly outnumber the weaker moments. It also stands out from Scarlet's Walk
, The Beekeeper
, and American Doll Posse
as the only album on which the concept doesn't interfere with the way the album flows, or hinder most listener's enjoyment of the finished product. In fact, you could probably argue that this isn't even a concept album at all - much has been made of the symbology of the Hawaiian goddess Pele in relation to this album (She represents fire, dancing, violence, and volcanoes), and it's true that Tori probably used that idea as a springboard for these songs, most of which focus on power struggles within gender politics, and the idea of patriarchy within religion. But isn't that the kind of thing she'd been writing about from day one? Couldn't "God", "Crucify", "Cornflake Girl", and even "Me And A Gun" fit neatly under that concept as well? Only "Muhammad My Friend" makes explicit reference to the Pele legend, both by naming her and suggesting that Jesus was female.
Ah well. Precisely where this album's reputation comes from baffles me. Some - including me - would argue that Amos had to change things up at this point in her career, to save herself from producing endless inferior variations on the near-perfect Little Earthquakes
. From that point of view, Boys For Pele
is a gloriously, arguably unexpected success story. When you consider some of the deeply mediocre albums that have been praised for their departure from the rest of an artist's catalogue (Plastic Ono Band
, I Against I
and yes, the Dreaming
), this album certainly does not deserve to be looked down upon - only its length and its tendency to sacrifice consistency for scope hold it back from a higher rating; if either "Talula" or "In The Springtime of His Voodoo" been cut from the album I'd probably be giving it a 4.5. The bottom line is that each one of the first four Tori Amos solo albums is a masterpiece, and if you've got the time to invest in uncovering its numerous charms then this is probably the most interesting of the lot.