Review Summary: ...And down the rabbit hole we go.
The album art for Boys For Pele might raise an bypasser's interest. Tori Amos sits, calm and confident, on the front porch of an old Louisiana-style cabin holding a rifle, ready to threaten whatever creature might move closer to her from what might be a swamp or perhaps even a prairie. At least, this is the setup after a quick glance. There are elements that reveal themselves as betrayals to the viewer. One leg of her is out and uncovered, despite a pair trousers lying from her waist down, and a rattlesnake makes its way between her mud-soaked feet. She isn't wearing a top, that's merely a pillow. Is that a dead rooster, or cock - if you will, hanging down on the left? Where is the source of that sharp, unearthly glow on the wall? It's a neat little trick played on the viewer. But what is this? On other pictures Tori's laying on a mattress in ghoulish surroundings, a puddle is reflecting a nuclear blast, ghost-like children can be noticed behind the window pane and (oh dear) is she breast-feeding a piglet?!
It's fascinating how these images, while creepily evocative and visual mood-setters for the album don't make the listener any wiser on the songs themselves. The backdrop has been painted vividly, but only the listener can make sense of what it's leading toward. One thing's for certain: it's a whole lot of crazy.
Yes, Boys For Pele is arguably Tori's most labyrinthine and complex album: more often than not something that isn't for the casual listener. It's shrouded in impressionism-like and occult mystery. The eccentric part of the singer songwriter also makes a considerable mark as the quirks and insanity bleeds into the emotional side people have been drawn toward about her ever since Little Earthquakes. The result is a career highlight and a gem to remember, but one a lot of people seem to not do.
I am getting ahead of myself, though, with summarizing descriptions that may sound far-fetched and contributing to building up large expectations for this record. Truth is, you probably won't be swayed over at first listen, perhaps not even after knowing how the songs progress. Why am I then incessant on proving there's some huge deal to be found in these eighteen tracks?
After all: I'm not completely
alone. Despite being a long and obscure pop release Boys For Pele is one of Tori's most highly regarded albums among her fans and her highest charting one (securing the #2 spot in both the UK and US at release). Many fans find the songs on the album to have a special meaning to them. Yes, this isn't anything new with Tori's ouevre, but a larger part of the songs here are of the lyrically cryptic kind. Very much in the same way a few songs moved along on Under the Pink. They're quirky, abstract and occasionally laughable in their sporadic linking of words.
Yet there was something I felt didn't get through to me while spinning this particular record. It seemed like something substantial flew right above my head. At first I found a major portion of it to be "interesting", but nothing past that.
Boys For Pele doesn't encourage a particularly "objective" listen. It is an album recorded while Tori was going through a process of melancholy. The relationship with producer and longtime boyfriend Eric Rosse had tragically ended and she subsequently dabbled into short flings, voodoo drugs and a journey to seek the fire she previously sought through other men: A search for her individual strength, in many ways.
This results in the crazy side of Tori Amos shining eerily throughout the album. On Boys For Pele she has gone down the rabbit hole, indeed, and it is in turn discomforting and whimsical.
The instrumentation has gotten an upgrade and varies all the way from strings to a southern gospel choir. It's far from the seamless blend like her next release would be. In fact, the elements are scattered all over the album. It's a surprise when the horns abruptly kick in on the cartoon-like "Mr. Zebra" or when the harpsichord makes its many appearances. The latter, especially, is vital to this release. The harpsichord is used nearly as often as the grand piano, sharply toying along on windy single "Talula" or the bitter "Blood Roses", distinctly working to great effect. It is showcased as a proper rock instrument, often juxtaposed with guitars and drums: A baroque device with the attitude of a more modern keyboard.
The production is peculiar, as well. The album was recorded at a church in Ireland, often inside of a small box with the instruments huddled in together. A natural sense of claustrophobic room becomes apparent: It feels like Tori's intimately up close to the listener's ear, both lulling and panting. "Professional Widow", in particular, shows off Tori's vocal experimentation. Despite the contrast previously in her career being the fragile and the grandiose here it's graphic and brutal to the overall sound. She gnarls, breathes heavily, utilizes her highest octaves and goes hoarse in short periods, no doubt putting some damage on her throat.
Ultimately it's the depth of the content in these songs that are especially memorable, for there is plenty of sonic room for Tori to fill in with words. The songs are many and share themes of religion, relationships, friendships and loneliness. Seems like usual business in itself, but the lyrical imagery changes the course of the experience. Zebras and crocodiles walk in, a doughnut hole is used as a metaphor, King Henry VIII and Angie Dickinson are referenced, it was apparently a girl who was born in Bethlehem, someone's been killed and there's a girl hiding in an abbey; amongst a myriad of occurrences.
The aforementioned "Professional Widow" is wildly rumored to be an impersonation and insult directed toward Courtney Love, and hey, even friend Trent Reznor adopted a lyric for his song title "Star***ers Inc". Muhammad, My Friend has Tori gracefully pulling the listener in with a piano opener, followed by one of her most memorable criticisms of the Christian patriarchy. "Father Lucifer" sees her convinced that she shared a cup of tea with Lucifer himself while hallucinating.
Absolute highlights include the isolated centerpiece "Hey, Jupiter", the expertly executed first single "Caught A Light Sneeze" and "Marianne". The latter example does great in proving Tori's a gifted songwriter. With the exclusion of the added strings "Marianne" was written, performed and recorded in a single spur-of-the-moment take. It's an adventurous and majestic re-telling of the many events revolving around the overdose and death of a girl Tori knew around the age of fifteen. If you're still unsure of what my earlier point regarding the bizarre lyrics was all about then this track holds a typical contrast to take a look at:
A little blubber in my igloo, yes
Any idea what this is about? Me neither. Yet this part follows not long afterwards:
And they said Marianne killed herself and I said
Not a chance
Not a chance
It's not exactly plenty of room for interpretation in the second part. A lot of people may find Boys For Pele a frustrating album due to this insisting aspect of blurring half of the picture while the rest remains untouched. For the more avid fans it's an exciting hunt for the occult secrets that lie behind Tori's mythological mania.
The same one I attempted to structure in order to see the jest of this album, at first. What peaked my curiosity was that a thread appearing more visibly in the final tracks suggest some sort of chronological story - a narrative, in a loose way. In "Doughnut Song" and "Putting the Damage On" Tori faces the crushing end of her relationship with an honest outlet of emotions. "Twinkle" finishes things off as she's finally reached a point of setting a spark within herself: an optimistic end, after all, albeit understandably bittersweet due to her sounding emotionally drained by this point.
But how can the listener be moved and drained of feelings as well, when so much of the journey is encrypted? After a while I came to the realization that what brought me seemingly closer to the songs wasn't repeat listens, but an interpretation that mirrored my own experience in life. Who hasn't led the crushing disappointments and frustrations Tori goes through on this record? The love that never will be again, the loneliness, the hate, the injustice and the anger?
Boys For Pele challenges the listener, but not at all in the terms of patience or will to analyze. It rather forces the listener into giving a piece of his or her own personal self in order to get the cathartic thrill any other early Amos album delivers. It's far from a perfect record. Tori goes out of her mind and to questionable extremes as both the artist and the producer, but Boys For Pele still maintains a distinctly unique way of becoming important to listeners who have experienced personal tragedy. It's a cliché conclusion to reach, but it's a conclusion this reviewer firmly believes in.
There are two released versions of Boys For Pele. Keep in mind that some copies include the chart-topping "Armin Van Helden's Star Trunk Mix" of "Professional Widow", not the original track. "In the Springtime of His Voodoo" is also removed in this version, while "Talula" is featured as the single version "...(The Tornado Mix)".
B-sides and other notable tracks:
Cooling (From the Choirgirl Hotel B-side) (Essential)
Hey Jupiter (Dakota Version)
Talula (The Tornado Mix)
Somewhere Over the Rainbow (Live cover)