Boys For Pele
Tori Amos' third solo album finds the singer-songwriter at something of a crossroads. Over the course of two incredibly emotional albums and four years, Amos did just about everything a woman could do with brash honesty and a piano. With Boys For Pele, she reaches to try out some new ideas...but maybe not enough of them.
The slow introspective ballads here sound very familiar, and the introduction of some new instruments in the Amos arsenal don't quite take her far enough into the unknown. While Tori Amos' "close" relationship with her piano is now a trademark, some of her best songs in the past have utilized a full band, like "Past The Mission" and "God" from Under The Pink. While Boys For Pele doesn't focus exclusively on her piano, it unfortunately doesn't stray far beyond. If, as the title suggests, she is sacrificing men to the volcanic fires of Pele, it's not represented here instrumentally. She does venture into some instrumental changeups, however. On several songs, Amos trades in her Bosendorfer ivories for a harpsichord, which makes for an odd but engaging '90s-minstrel sound, and definitely a new sonic direction for Amos.Except for her uncontrolled "cattle call" at its end, "Blood Roses" sounds like 19th century classical music with its intricately travelling harpsichord. And in "Professional Widow" Amos actually uses the harpsichord for power chords, a decidedly daring and surprisingly successful, move.
On several songs throughout the album, a horn or other orchestral instrument is brought in for background, but often, as on the otherwise perfect soliloquy "Father Lucifer," they seem more intrusive than fully integrated with Amos and her piano. Gone this time is producer-boyfriend Eric Rosse, who worked on Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, putting Tori firmly in the producer's chair. The result is an album perhaps a little heavy on contemplative songs with tortured vocals and light on more upbeat (if subversive) "hit single" material like Pink's "God" and "Cornflake Girl" or Earthquake's "Crucify."
At 18 songs and 70 minutes, Pele is an overly drawn-out affair which would have benefitted from tighter reins and, in some cases, further development. Two of the songs which are the most fun on Pele — the twisted tin pan alley children's rhyme "Mr. Zebra" and the gospel-tinged "Way Down" are, at just over a minute each in length, really just unfinished thoughts. Just as they get going, Amos pulls the plug.
God and sex still play a big part in the standard backdrop of the new Amos canon (In "Father Lucifer" she offers the most amusing lyrics on the album as she asks Lucifer "How's the Lizzies/how's your Jesus Christ been hanging?") But this time out, her lyrics seem more oblique, less universally engaging than the gutwrenching personal rape detail of Earthquake's "Me And A Gun" or even the more shallow trial of dealing with a two-faced workmate in Pink's "The Waitress."
No matter how difficult her lyrics get on Pele, however, there are hints that these songs continue her personal struggle against male domination. In "Blood Roses" she cries out in bitter triumph over pained rejection: "I shaved every place where you been" and "When he sucks you deep/sometimes you're nothing but meat." But if men hurt, so do women. And Amos explores the dark side of women, notably in "Professional Widow," which deals with a woman who gets drugs for her lover while pushing him towards fame. It could have been written about Courtney Love: "Yes/don't blow those brains yet/we gotta be big boy...gonna strike a deal make him feel/like a Congressman."
"Professional Widow" and the ethereal whirlpool of a first single, "Caught A Lite Sneeze" (one of her best works to date) are the only "big beat" songs on Boys for Pele. That would be fine if the rest of the material on Pele were as moving as Pink's "Baker Baker" or Little Earthquake's "Silent All These Years." But none of the slow songs on Pele come close to the tortured beauty of those earlier works. A couple strive hard: "Horses" is a touching effort, and "Hey, Jupiter" brings out a confessional intimacy as Amos half-whispers "thought we both could use a friend to run to." And "Putting The Damage On," finds a most restrained Amos singing against the subtle counterpoint of a brass section. But none of them pull the listener close to tears.
There's no denying the seductive attraction of Amos' voice or the bare bones appeal of a song that lives with blazing intensity through the blood of a single instrument (in this case, a piano). But Boys For Pele is not quite the polished bit of pure soul that Amos' first two solo albums were. Which is not to say that Pele fails to heat up. It's simply uneven. There's a good album buried here, it just comes laden with some excess baggage and unfulfilled promises.