Friday, January 6, 2017

Tori Amos's Little Earthquakes turns 25

(Photo by Rob Verhost/Redferns via Rolling Stone.)

Tori Amos released her first solo album, Little Earthquakes, on January 6, 1992 — 25 years ago today.

Although she's an American, the album was released only in the UK at first; the US version was delayed until late February. Apparently the thinking was that she might not be as appealing to Americans. The concern was unnecessary.

It's hard to express what a brilliant artist Tori Amos is. She does three things and is stellar at each one: songwriting (alternating between frankly confessional and slyly cryptic), singing (at its most mellifluous on this album but capable of being much more raw), and piano playing (classically trained but with pop and jazz sensibilities).

Whether or not Little Earthquakes is her best album, it's at least the essential starting point for approaching her sprawling 25-year body of work.

Rolling Stone's "track-by-track guide to Little Earthquakes" includes extensive quotes by her about the long process of self-realization that led to creating her solo debut after leaving an unsuccessful band.

"Coming out of beating myself up about the choices I had made, I just rolled up my sleeves and grasped at all of the poetry that had ever meant anything to me," Amos says. "From Rimbaud to Baudelaire, e.e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, and also the visual artists. I surrounded myself with the stories and the thinkers that formed me, not what those that had the power to push the button wanted me to be formed with."

"Silent All These Years" is quintessential early Tori Amos — the rare songwriter who can pull off rhyming a whole phrase with itself:
So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts
What's so amazing about really deep thoughts?
The sudden feeling of uplift and release in the bridge ("years go by...") is exhilarating.

(Live solo.)

In "Precious Things," she delves into themes of Christianity, gender, beauty, sexuality, and humiliation, over a relentlessly driving rhythm.

(Live solo.)

In "Crucify," Tori, whose father was a minister, again addresses Christianity ("Got enough guilt to start my own religion"):

(Very different live version.)

"Winter" is the emotional centerpiece of the album — an almost startlingly intimate ballad.

(Live solo.)

Near the end of Little Earthquakes, in "Me and a Gun" (the least musically interesting but most lyrically arresting song on the album), Tori leaves her piano aside and recounts her harrowing experience of being raped. She explained in an interview:
In the song I say it was "Me and a Gun," but it wasn't a gun. It was a knife he had. And the idea was to take me to his friends and cut me up, and he kept telling me that, for hours. And if he hadn't needed more drugs, I would have been just one more news report where you see the parents grieving for their daughter.

And I was singing hymns, as I say in the song, because he told me to. I sang to stay alive. Yet I survived that torture, which left me urinating all over myself and left me paralyzed for years. That's what that night was all about, mutilation, more than violation through sex.

I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night, and that now I'm trying to put the pieces back together again. Through love, not hatred. And through my music. My strength has been to open again, to life, and my victory is the fact that, despite it all, I kept alive my vulnerability.

Continuing the theme of "vulnerability," she sings in "China":
Sometimes, I think you want me to touch you
How can I, when you build the great wall around you?
Few albums keep vulnerability alive as beautifully and daringly as Little Earthquakes.


J. Farmer said...

Hello, John, I'm a reader of your mother's blog and came over from her link. A couple of questions:

1) what are your thoughts/feelings of Kate Bush?
2) have you ever heard Amos' earlier work in the form of the band Y Kant Tori Read?

John Althouse Cohen said...

Kate Bush is great. I have a couple of her albums. She seems to have inspired Tori Amos, though Tori liked to downplay that. But I think Tori is even better.

I've listened to a few Y Kant Tori Read songs. I think the band made fairly typical late '80s music that now sounds pretty dated. It sounds a little like Cyndi Lauper, but not as good. It's weird to see her in their videos and band photos with such a different persona. Their music doesn't seem to have much to do with Tori Amos as we know her, except that her voice is in it. There's a reason the band flopped, and I'm glad it did — otherwise, there would be no Little Earthquakes.

J. Farmer said...

If you're not familiar with it already, listen to Kate Bush's This Woman's Work from the John Hughe's romcom She's Having a Baby. Three minutes forty-two seconds of pure pop bliss. I think Amos is undeniably derivative of Bush, right down to certain vocal tics, though I don't say that derisively. Derivation is how influence and canon formation work. I was only ten when Little Earthquakes was released; I discovered Amos in 1998, at age 16, with her From the Choirgirl Hotel and worked backwards from there. My favorite track was Earthquakes was Me and a Gun followed closely by Crucify and Silent All These Years.

I brought up "Y Kant..." because it reminded of another parallel a few years later--Alanis Morissette. Her career also began in the early 1990s with dance-pop hits in Canada before reinventing herself with 1995's Jaggged Little Pill, an iconic album of 90s female angst. It was the decade of Shirley Manson of Garbage, Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, Meredith Brooks, Poe, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair, Sarah McLachlan, Lisa Loeb, Paula Cole, Ani Difranco, and Fiona Apple. Amos fit in that lineup perfectly. Come to think of it...what's the female alt-rock scene of today?

John Althouse Cohen said...

what's the female alt-rock scene of today?

St. Vincent.

J. Farmer said...

Saw her front Lithium during Nirvana's Hall of Fame induction performance but am otherwise clueless.