Tori Amos, Boys For Pele


Let’s be very clear about this – I used to be a much bigger fan of Tori Amos before I figured out how nuts she was.  Perhaps all artists are a little nuts, but Tori is nuts.  On VH1’s Storytellers in 1998, when describing why she wrote Pele’s “Hey Jupiter,” Amos recounted a tale about a dead man that sat on the edge of the bed in her hotel room while on tour.  On that same broadcast, she described the tale behind a song, from 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel, called “Iieee,” which being told on television, in her description of a little boy who told her to drive to distant cities and start fires, would be enough proof of hallucinations to get your average citizen hospitalized.


Yet even as my embarrassment for Amos’s public appearances cooled my teenage love of her, my admiration of 1996’s Boys For Pele hasn’t subsided – I’m still certain it’s her best work, and the work of a personality we’re lucky to have.  At the time, Rolling Stone gave it a two star review calling it “self-indulgent,” and Entertainment Weekly echoed the sentiment, labeling the record “histrionic.”  The aim was often at Amos’s bewildering lyrics, which I could try and waste everyone’s time in defending as quasi-mystical, or feminist calls to arms.  But really, they are mostly bad.  The amazing thing is that doesn’t matter much.  Even more amazing is that they occasionally are pretty successful anyway.


Boys For Pele is, to me, great because it is self-indulgent – it’s the only record of Amos’s catalogue that fully explores her crazy-feminist-pissed-at-men-and-God lunacy and sublimates it.  It combines her best melodious instincts with her fiery consciousness and creates a result that’s as creative, as vital, as it is crazed.  She begins with quiet piano trembles in “Beauty Queen/Horses,” adds a harpsichord in “Blood Roses,” includes a trumpet and a bass in “Father Lucifer,” and by the time track 4, “Professional Widow,” explodes into a cavalcade of industrial synth, you’re willing to believe that Amos has abandoned all of the wise A/C melody she cultivated on Little Earthquakes and tweaked, sorta, on Under The Pink.  Frankly, those records don’t hold up well – they’re sanitized and half-cooked, even when the material is good.  Boys For Pele succeeds because it feels like so frenzied, it might explode at any moment.  For an album titled after a goddess who sits in a volcano waiting to swallow men thrown at her, that frenzy fits.


But for a minute, let me say what I mean about how it doesn’t matter that the lyrics don’t work.  I think if you wanted to pull out Amos’s lyrics and read them like a poem, like you could with Joni Mitchell, you would be disappointed.  But what are song lyrics supposed to be?  Amos has a knack for small phrases that evoke winces of emotion, that complement her idiosyncrasies.  In “Professional Widow” – still Amos’s most whacked out track to date – a line like “Everywhere a Judas as far as you can see/ beautiful angels calling” doesn’t exactly mean anything, but it sounds good.  On the big-band backed “Putting The Damage On,” a line like “I’m trying not to move, it’s just your ghost passing through” sounds deeply wounding and lovely.


Looking at the initial release information of Boys For Pele, I realize that I’ve been listening to the album in some form or another now for 13 years.  For most, “Professional Widow” and “Hey Jupiter” – if not Amos’s entire career – are flits of distant memory.  For me, I can hear the record and admire its ups and downs.  A song like “Professional Widow” that can turn, with a jump, into a sweet, lovely soft song like “Marianne.”  The beautiful “Doughnut Song” that gets exploded by sitting next to a fiery, wonderful number like “In The Springtime Of His Voodoo.”  I, for one, am happy I have Amos’s lunacy to admire, even if I’m less than overwhelmed with the rest of her catalogue – Boys For Pele is the album that Amos, acting also as producer, dared to put her lunatic head into, and we’re all a little saner for it.


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