Tori Amos, “Little Earthquakes”

little earthquakes(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #31 – released February 25, 1992. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 5/27/15.)

Track listing: Crucify / Girl / Silent All These Years / Precious Things / Winter / Happy Phantom / China / Leather / Mother / Tear In Your Hand / Me And A Gun / Little Earthquakes

I’ve mentioned before that 1992, the year I turned 17, is when everything changed in regards to how music shaped my life. Likely, the same thing happened to you, if not at 17, then probably somewhere near there: as we come of age, we’re at our most impressionable, feeling like we’re experiencing everything for the first time because more often than not, we genuinely are. It follows that the next thirty-odd albums I’ll be covering here all came out between 1992 and 1997 (and I heard a majority of them for the first time during that era). While a good writer is aware of nostalgia’s pitfalls and studiously tries to avoid them (no matter how tempting), any assessment made about some of these albums would seem incomplete and false if I did not divulge in personal details or anecdotes directly related to their impact on me.

There’s one night from this period I still hold particularly deep in my heart, so much that I remember the exact date: July 5, 1996, a Friday evening in Milwaukee. After playing multiple rounds of Connect Four at an East Side coffeehouse, a few friends (all female) and I drove down to Lake Michigan and set off for the rocks lining the shore north of Bradford Beach. Climbing those rocks was forbidden, but we didn’t care—the worst that could happen would be a cop spotting us and telling us to leave (no one did). Sitting there after midnight under a clear, starry sky, listening to the waves and the occasional vehicle zooming by along Lincoln Memorial Drive, one of us began to sing a song from Little Earthquakes. I don’t remember which song, exactly—it might have been “Silent All These Years” or “Winter”—but we all joined in, and then sang a few others, probably “Precious Things” and “Crucify”, maybe even “Leather”. Nearly two decades removed, it admittedly seems a little corny, but let me tell you at the time it was absolutely profound, to bond over sharing this secret, special place with each other, singing songs from an album we spontaneously discovered we all adored.

If it’s now difficult to fathom how beloved Tori Amos was at her career peak in the early-mid 1990s, note that at the time, just as many people reviled the very idea of her. She was often called twee, pretentious, precious and other derogatory terms. Every other music writer seemed to accuse her of sounding too much like early Kate Bush—a fair observation musically, I suppose, although vocally I still don’t get how anyone could possibly mistake Amos’ unique timbre for Bush’s equally distinct tone. At 17, even I curtly dismissed the videos MTV aired from Little Earthquakes as “girl-with-a-piano” stuff, only coming around when I heard “God”, the first single from her follow-up album, Under the Pink (1994). Sinuous, playful and a little audacious (“Do you need a woman to look after you?” she asks the titular deity), it got my attention. Under the Pink proved an intriguing, if demanding listen; when I finally checked out the earlier album some time later, its relative accessibility clicked right away for me, the melodies and textures deepening and revealing new facets with each spin like any great album should.

So immediately and extensively does Amos establish her persona across Little Earthquakes’ first three tracks that, upon listening to them again nearly a quarter-century on, any skepticism towards her relevance or ability to connect with an audience quickly evaporates. Her opening salvo, “Every finger in the room / is pointing at me / I wanna spit in their faces / then I get afraid of what that could bring” conveys her candor and a confessional nature whose lineage one can uncover all the way back to Blue. Then, she takes a few steps further, linking religion to sex (“looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets”) to guilt (she has enough “to start her own religion”) and self-immolation (“I’ve been raising up my hands / drive another nail in”). She steps back, hinting at a little self-deprecation (“Just what God needs / one more victim”) before declaring her defiance in the chorus (“Why do we crucify ourselves?”). As with every song on the album (save for one), the piano is the dominant instrument, although the airy, booming percussion is just as prominent here.

Both return for “Girl” along with some sampled synth-strings (and in the bridge, a few unexpected, intricate overlapping melodies). Switching to the third-person lyrically, it feels less intimate than “Crucify” but the chorus’ feminist observation that “She’s been everybody else’s girl / maybe one day she’ll be her own,” resonates instantly. With “Silent All These Years”, she returns to the first-person, singing from the vantage point of someone in a relationship stifled by her partner, summoning the desire and courage to be heard. Although she teases him about “a girl who thinks really deep thoughts”, this is more a declaration than just mere comment. The force with which she sings, “Sometimes I hear my voice and it’s been here” is massive, placing glorious emphasis on that last word, showing a proficiency for the soft/loud/soft dynamic favored by contemporary alt-rock bands like the Pixies and Nirvana only in a far more delicate orchestral pop setting. Such a confluence of personal, deeply felt affirmation and an indelible melody has made “Silent All These Years” the album’s true standard and biggest “hit” (even if it never made the top 40).

From there, Little Earthquakes goes off on tangents that occasionally return to, but more often complicate and alter our expectations of Amos set up by the previous songs. “Precious Things” opens with a low hum of noise followed by a skittering piano and an accompanying sound perhaps resembling a person running, trying to catch her breath. Amos’ voice enters calm and slow over the unusual, anxiety-ridden time signature. She remains in control as the arrangement goes practically mental (not to mention metal), drums pummeling all over the chorus until we hear a guitar and a thunder crack, followed by her magnificent, intense wail as if all hell has broken loose and she physically cannot remain silent anymore. If you’re listening to the album for the first time in sequence, you might as well wonder, “What happened to that nice young woman with the piano from the first three tracks?” Here she’s far closer to the fury of someone like Trent Reznor (note how she references him via “those demigods with their nine-inch nails”) than Joni Mitchell, and all the more admirable for it.

Much of the rest of the album alternates between serious, reflective orchestral ballads and playful, whimsical diversions. With its lone piano and crystalline melody, the opening of “Winter” stands in great, gripping contrast to “Precious Things”. Amos almost effortlessly aces this sort of thing, the orchestration stirringly weaving in and out of her piano and vocals, lending depth to what could’ve too easily ended up another monochromatic ballad. “Happy Phantom”, on the other hand, is a palette cleanser, deliberately jaunty and upbeat, the piano even breaking into a boogie-woogie on the pre-chorus while making room for joyous “woo-hoo’s”, some dulcimer during the bridge, imagery like “chasing nuns out in the yard” and an abrupt, dissonant outro. “China”, in contrast, is another slow one; this time, the orchestration is smooth and richly textured, enveloping Amos with elegance and grace—it’s not too far off from one of Madonna’s classier ballads like “Oh Father”. “Leather” follows, baring its lack of guile from the very start (opening lines are, “Look I’m standing naked before you / don’t you want more than my sex”), its arch, staccato notes fitting in nicely with a suddenly revealed sense of humor (the affected, exaggerated tone Amos lends to the words “nice big fat cigar”), all coming off like a teasing-but-knowing cabaret number of the sort one upcoming 100 Albums artist practically built her career on.

In theory, such vacillation should make for a jagged listen. I can’t fully determine how “Mother”, a nearly seven minute piano-and-voice number that takes its sweet time in getting to where it wants to go sits comfortably next to “Tear In Your Hand”, a more conventional, lush, radio-friendly breakup song. Likewise, I can’t explain how flawlessly the hushed, demure “China” seems to follow the exceedingly giddy “Happy Phantom”. Still, for all her changes in tone and demeanor, Amos is obviously the glue holding it all together. What remains constant throughout all of Little Earthquakes is both her fearlessness (Madonna’s the only other person in ’92 who would even attempt a lyric like “so you can make me cum / that doesn’t make you Jesus”) and her vulnerability. They play a vital part in the album’s final two songs, both of which find Amos going even beyond those parameters she has so far set.

“Me and a Gun” has no orchestra, no guitar, no drums, not even a piano—just Amos singing a melody simple enough for a nursery rhyme, although it’s far more suited to a murder ballad. She bluntly recounts being raped, just “Me and a gun / and a man on my back.” She remembers the harrowing, traumatic experience as if reliving it, talking herself through it (“You can laugh, it’s kinda funny / the things you think at times like these / like I haven’t seen Barbados / so I must get outta this”). Naturally, recording the song a capella suitably renders it almost unbearably intimate, heightening its emotional impact. I can imagine how startled first-time listeners would be, completely unaware that it’s coming. To place it any earlier on Little Earthquakes would be too soon, with no chance to process everything Amos has divulged in those first ten tracks; to end the album with it would be far too brutal—an ending without any hope.

Thus, after Amos sings her last note in “Me and a Gun”, the title track/album closer promptly begins. Its first measures are soft yet cavernous, one dominant droning chord over which Amos lets out seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics until the chord changes and she sings, “and I hate / and I hate / and I hate… elevator music,” but also less trivial things like “the way we fight”. On the chorus, she laments, “Oh these little earthquakes / doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces,” easily a summation of everything else she’s sung about here. From that point, the song builds like a volcano ready to erupt: a brief, deceptively lighthearted piano lick at 3:17 soon gives way to loud, impassioned cries of “Hey, can I reach you?” until everything drops out at 3:57, with Amos and assorted voices repeating this, the album’s key mantra: “Give me life, give me pain, / give me myself again.” It’s sung six times, gaining in volume and power until the key changes again and Amos repeatedly wails with the force of one thousand earthquakes (I can’t do justice to exactly how her 26-syllable wail sounds by writing it down). A grand act of catharsis and an attempt at redemption, this part is the song’s emotional climax; all that’s left is for Amos to do is quietly return to the chorus once more and bring this whirlwind down to a resolved close.

Amos set the bar for herself so high with Little Earthquakes that if she never recorded another record, or one at least half as good, her place in the singer/songwriter firmament would still be secure. I agree with those who maintain she never topped it, but her subsequent career proved so rewarding and wide-ranging that I have trouble defining her solely by it. As I continually revise this list of 100 Albums in my mind, Amos has two other records I periodically consider including—don’t be surprised if at least one of them makes the final cut.

Up next: To age gracefully.

“Precious Things”:

 

“Little Earthquakes”:

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