(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #51 – released January 23, 1996)
Track listing: Beauty Queen / Horses / Blood Roses / Father Lucifer / Professional Widow / Mr. Zebra / Marianne / Caught a Lite Sneeze / Muhammad My Friend / Hey Jupiter / Way Down / Little Amsterdam / Talula / Not The Red Baron / Agent Orange / Doughnut Song / In The Springtime of His Voodoo / Putting The Damage On / Twinkle
When approaching new work by artists we love, we inevitably weigh it against expectations put in place by what came before. These comparisons allow for first impressions that can span a wide spectrum, from immense pleasure to utter disgust and every gradation in between. Over the years, brand new albums from my favorite musicians have alternately left me pleased, soothed, vindicated, disillusioned, delightfully surprised and downright baffled.
Boys for Pele mostly fell into that last category on my first listen days after its release. While not altogether foreign from Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, Tori Amos’ third album was certainly different; I referred to it as “Tori Goes Off The Deep End” in my journal at the time. Consider the facts: eighteen tracks long instead of the usual twelve… fewer orchestral arrangements and more newfangled sounds like harpsichord, brass band, programmed drums and a gospel choir… knotty, oblique lyrics (“Tuna, rubber, a little blubber in my igloo”) that made Amos’ previously most obscure references, such as those on the Alice Walker-inspired “Cornflake Girl” seem positively lucid. And of course, the cover: instead of crouching in a box with a toy piano or demurely standing still, draped in white, she’s sprawled across a rocking chair on a porch in some rural backwater, legs strewn with dirt, a shotgun on her lap and a dead rooster hanging upside down next to her. This double album-length collection was clearly making some kind a statement, possibly Amos telling her fans (and all curious onlookers), “It’s time for me to take a bold leap forward, whether you’re ready to join me or not.”
The crucial thing to know about this record is that it’s the first one Amos produced herself. Much of her prior work was helmed by Eric Rosse, with whom she was romantically involved. They split up during the making of Under the Pink, so Pele is not only Amos taking control of the way her music sounds (she would self-produce all of her subsequent recordings), it’s also nominally a breakup album, occasionally seething with rage and a swagger that at times exceeds even the most incendiary passages of Little Earthquakes. I’m tempted to call it a textbook Difficult Third Album—less accessible and considerably denser than its predecessors for sure—but it’s so much more than that. Although parts of Pele still flummox me now, through time and many listens, it has become my most favorite Amos album after Little Earthquakes.
For such a call-to-attention, Pele opens rather quietly and tentatively with “Beauty Queen”, all lingering piano notes and minimalist, haiku-like lyrics. It’s a prelude, appearing in the track listing but actually sharing the first CD track with “Horses”, whose more concrete melody materializes about two minutes in. It’s still all just piano and voice, but noticeably fuller and hookier, gaining momentum through multiple, layered arpeggios. Partially amplified through a Leslie cabinet, Amos’ signature Bösendorfer piano carries a slightly otherworldly tint, but otherwise the song could’ve easily fit on her previous albums.
Not so for “Blood Roses”, Amos’ first-ever song to utilize a harpsichord (also amplified) in place of piano. Its lower, baroque tone is a new texture in the Tori-verse—an earthier energy that also comes through in her vocal as she works the pedals of this archaic instrument. She’s ever in tune and in control, but also freer, as if dangling on a precipice when she abruptly shifts to a higher register on the “You think I’m a queer / I think you’re a queer” part, nearly out of breath on each “queer”. She later breaks into a mighty wail on the “God knows I’ve thrown away those graces” bridge, and rattles off a series of seemingly improvised “C’mon’s” as if she were a possessed jazz singer. Sparingly employed church bells and a low organ hum complete the unorthodox arrangement.
She’s back to the Bösendorfer on “Father Lucifer”, where guitar and bass make their first appearances on Pele. Far less intimidating than “Blood Roses”, it has one of the album’s catchiest melodies (and hooks—the clipped “ha” preceding each verse), but that’s not to downplay its complexity, especially at the bridge, which expands on a bed of countermelodies and overlapping vocals, dotted by startling but graceful trumpet flourishes. Much of the album was recorded in a church in rural Ireland, and you can hear the uncommon effect this has all over Pele. In place of a traditional studio’s unavoidable sterility, the recordings feel more intimate and alive. It’s as if Amos has set out to recapture the precarious, uncomfortable vibe of her earlier a Capella track “Me and a Gun”, only with instruments.
Still, nothing you’ve heard so far anticipates what comes next. “Professional Widow” is where Amos really does go off the deep end and it’s an astonishing plunge. The harpsichord returns with a vengeance, this time buttressed by an onslaught of programmed beats rolling along with her enraged, profane vocal (opening line is “Slag pit / stag shit / honey, bring it close to my lips, yes,” soon followed by “Starfucker / just like my daddy”). It’s a raucous, alarming, sometimes hilarious song (“gonna strike a deal / make him feel like a congressman”); it’s also exceedingly weird, particularly when everything drops out at 1:30 for a piano-and-voice interlude with a completely different melody and unnervingly light tone. “We’ve got every rerun / of Muhammad Ali,” Amos sweetly, nonsensically trills before the song swerves back to the beginning, angrier than ever, eventually reaching another tempo changing, sinus clearing coda. I know I dismissed Kate Bush comparisons in my essay on Little Earthquakes, but Amos placing “Professional Widow” on her third album is as if Bush had gone straight from her relatively accessible second album Lionheart to her “I’ve gone mad” fourth album The Dreaming, passing over the transitional Never For Ever.
Having established Pele’s adventurous scope in just four tracks, Amos continues pushing forward. The second of four brief interludes (if you count “Beauty Queen”), “Mr. Zebra”, a whimsical, cabaret-like number recorded with the Black Dyke Mills Brass Band, reminds one of Little Earthquakes’ “Leather” a bit; more interestingly, it anticipates something like Fiona Apple’s “Extraordinary Machine” by nearly a decade. Piano ballad “Marianne” features Pele’s only string arrangement (performed by The Sinfonia of London). As those strings rapidly cut in and out of the melody, Amos punctuates her vocals along the spaces in between, recalling not so much Kate Bush as prime Joni Mitchell. “Caught a Lite Sneeze” brings back the programmed drums, almost nodding towards trip-hop in how Amos’ piano and voice hypnotically wraps around them. It’s a more approachable breakup lament than “Professional Widow” and clever in how it occasionally imbues the personal with the political (“Make my own Pretty Hate Machine,” she sings in a nod to friend Trent Reznor.) “Muhammad My Friend” reprises Amos’ use of religious imagery (as heard in “Father Lucifer”, “God”, “Crucify”, etc.) but only after a lengthy, gorgeous piano intro that shifts into a different but equally beautiful melody. It’s soon illuminated by a sweet soprano sax and disarmingly absurd lyrics about finding “a place in the Pope’s rubber robe,” and inviting us to “do drop in at the Dew Drop Inn,” negating claims of Amos’ supposed humorlessness.
Though aurally and thematically diverse, you can sense Pele building towards something, and it arrives just before the halfway mark. “Hey Jupiter” is more straightforward than what precedes it, but that does not diminish any of its power. Constructed like a classic, mournful, piano-and-voice ballad (the intro recalling nothing so much as Bette Midler’s “The Rose”), it initially seems to follow the tried and true path of a thousand other ballads. However, there are no added-on strings and the delicate melody develops and strengthens without Amos exactly erupting into full-on, Celine Dion-esque over-emoting. Instead, when the chorus arrives, she simply, wordlessly sings over her piano and electric guitar chords in a clever but completely affecting “Purple Rain” rip. Her subtle use of loud-soft dynamics lends the song its plaintive but awesome magic, along with lyrics that alternate between her usual quirkiness (“Your apocalypse was fab”) and those that hit directly to the gut (“Guess I never thought I could feel / the things I feel.”)
If Pele’s second half lacks the first’s consistency, at least it never runs out of steam. The third interlude, “Way Down” is most notable for the gospel choir (recorded in New Orleans) at its very end, introducing a new kind of warmth to Amos’ oeuvre. It’s an evocative prelude to “Little Amsterdam”, a Flannery O’Connor-esque Southern gothic built on a swampy piano riff and touched with kudzu-like background electronic effects. The loping, undulating, dark groove is another new wrinkle for Amos, as is the jazzy, almost feral cadence she breaks into late in the song. “Talula” retains the past two tracks’ regionalism and is perhaps the only one on Pele to go for a relatively maximalist arrangement—the harpsichord returns along with the full band, plus drum programming and (barely discernible) horns. The song’s giddy brightness earmarked it for a single, and it’s surely the only one to ever feature such lyrics as “I’ve got Big Bird on the fishing line,” and “I’ve got my rape hat on.” Opening with another lengthy piano intro, “Not the Red Baron” is a much-needed palette cleanser, melancholy and march-like, with a few Peanuts references (“Not Charlie’s wonderful dog”) to boot.
Fourth and final interlude “Agent Orange” is even wispier a composition than the preceding three, but the following “Doughnut Song” makes up for it. A deceptively simple track whose title hook has a fortune cookie-like specificity (“You’ll never gain weight from a doughnut hole”), it gains in intensity as its repeated piano hook begins to shimmer and the counterpoint vocals on the second verse add heft. Just as effectively, Amos defuses this intensity near the end as the song circles back to its opening. “In the Springtime of His Voodoo” conjures more Joni Mitchell comparisons, only this time circa her challenging, late ‘70s jazz period. Pounding piano, nonsensical scat singing, sly observations like “Honey, we’re recovering Christians”, repeated requests to “Mr. Sulu” to go “Warp speed”, supposed bagpipes (they’re in the credits)—it’s a lot to unpack (admittedly, I used to often skip over it). And yet, whenever you arrive at that blissful chorus or upon a brief but heavenly key-changing bridge, it’s enough for all but the most aggravated listener to forgive having to sit through Amos’ pretensions and peculiarities to reach it.
Just as Pele is threatening an irreversible slide towards obscurity, the penultimate “Putting the Damage On” surfaces like a beacon through the fog. The brass band returns for an opening fanfare that rapidly builds in volume before going silent and letting just Amos and her piano take the first verse. Like “Hey Jupiter”, it’s another classic-sounding breakup ballad with such clever yet vulnerable lyrics as “Now I’ve got to put on my best impression / of my best Angie Dickinson.” The brass, however, transforms it into something more. When Amos sings, “Take it high, high, high,” and hits that third “high”, the horns rise up to life and would nearly drown her out if they weren’t so in sync with her (and Amos and the band likely recorded their parts separately). Because of their ultra-specific tone, the effect of them coming together with her is mesmerizing rather than chilling. They open up the song in all the right ways, but it’s Amos who provides the lone, effective closing note. For many, this would be an ideal spot to close the album, but Amos ends Pele the way it began, with only her voice and piano. “Twinkle” just seems to hang there in an abstract space similar to “Beauty Queen”, although there’s a little more resolve, a sense of having lived through something—perhaps wisdom gleaned from experience. “She twinkles / and that means / I sure can,” she sings, but adds that it’s also “so hard”, repeats those last two words, and the album ends.
The demanding Pele had the somewhat ironic fortune to come out right at Amos’ commercial peak, debuting at number two on both the US and UK album charts*; since then, she’s gradually fallen back to cult/legacy artist status, although her albums still regularly make the top ten. On occasion, she even puts out a pretty decent one such as Pele’s follow-up, From the Choirgirl Hotel, or her epic post 9/11 travelogue/concept LP Scarlet’s Walk. Still, nothing else she’s done has had quite the same impact as Pele. It doesn’t offer much conclusiveness or catharsis; its flamboyance courts attention, yet it never showboats nor merely exists for Amos to show the world what she’s capable of. However, it’s more unfiltered than those first two albums and cuts nearer to the bone. It’s the type of record that requires close, headphones listening; you have to take the time to absorb and live with its eccentricities, detours and tonal/structural shifts. It’s Amos working (perhaps for the first time) without a net, fully trusting her instincts and in the process creating something that stands apart from her previous triumphs, but is equally built to last.
Next: Rebuking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.
*Speaking of unlikely chart successes, “Professional Widow” was a number one UK single, albeit in a near-unrecognizable techno version remixed by Armand Van Helden and subtitled “It’s Got to Be Big” (one of the two lyrics it samples from the original recording).