You will have noticed something of a bias in my previous Classic Album reviews towards the music of the mid 90’s. The era of Britpop was one of my previous major musical periods of interest, and so many of my favourite albums emerged at that time. But we are also now talking about albums that were released 20 years ago – and this seems to be a very good time to review that music and see how it has stood up to the changes in music since then. One such album is ‘Boys For Pele’, from Tori Amos – and that is the album I am going to look at today.
Tori Amos is my favourite musician of all time. I was astonished when I first saw her – a flame haired beauty playing piano with wild abandon and almost primal ferocity. When she was at her height of success and excellence, there was nobody before or after whose songs have thrilled and moved me in the same kind of way. ‘Boys For Pele’ marks an interesting point in Amos’ career. Her first two albums had both been colossal successes. ‘Little Earthquakes’ clearly merits some discussion in these pages, as it remains my favourite album ever (it is the 25th anniversary of its release next year). ‘Under The Pink’, which came out in 1994 provided Amos with her first major hit single in the UK in ‘Cornflake Girl’, and set high standards for her third studio album.
‘Boys For Pele’ was somewhat unexpected in its scope and style then when it was released in the summer of 1996. Both ‘Little Earthquakes’ and ‘Under The Pink’ had been tightly selected albums, both with well focused songs whose subject matter was immediately clear. Both also interestingly suffered from overly long closing tracks that could have been left off without any compromise on the final quality (the title track on ‘Little Earthquakes’ and ‘Yes Anastasia’ on ‘Under The Pink’). ‘Boys For Pele’ was rather different – a sprawling work 18 tracks long, with four short ‘interlude’ tracks designed to act as lead songs on each side of a double vinyl LP, and lyrics that immediately piqued the interest and (considerable) criticism from reviewers because of their bizarre, unpenetrable, often nonsensical nature. What exactly was Amos up to?
The album was born from the wreckage of Amos’ relationship with Eric Rosse, producer of her two previous albums. Amos conceived of the songs as a means of restoring her fire and energy as a woman, and taking that fire back from the men in her life. The myths of the Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele and themes of feminism and religion are woven throughout the music. And Amos’ superlative vocal and masterful piano provide the familiar hook on which these new, novel ideas are laid. What results is challenging, unsettling and in places very difficult to fathom. But in places, it is quite brilliant, and one forgets just how good some of these songs are until you hear them again.
The album kicks off with one of its interludes, the mysterious ‘Beauty Queen’. Just Amos and her piano, chiming gently behind her breathy, haunted vocal. This flows into ‘Horses’, the first hint of the lyrical weirdness that either makes or mars the album, depending on your viewpoint. “So I chased down your posies… your pansies in my hosies”. Some songs use lyrical pace and meter to act as a counterpoint to the melody, with the actual content being less important. But Amos had always been a focused, precise songwriter before – given to moments of punch that smack you between the eyes. “So you can make me come… that doesn’t make you Jesus” from ‘Precious Things’ is one excellent example. Pick a song on the first two albums, read the lyrics and you know what she is talking about (with maybe the honourable exception of ‘Cornflake Girl’). What is she singing about in ‘Horses’? Don’t know.
‘Blood Roses’, the next track has plenty of punch – this is a song full of abuse and humiliation. Amos has even referenced Peter Greenaway’s horrific movie ‘The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover’ in speaking about the song and its killer last line “Sometimes you’re nothing but meat”. When Amos snarls “You think I’m a queer… I think you’re a queer” – this is vicious and terrifying. It’s good then that the menace drops with the next song – which is bizarre, because ‘Father Lucifer’ tells the story of a day when Amos took part in an ayahusca ceremony with a South American shaman and met the Devil. The gentle piano and Amos’ faltering vocal turns it into a gorgeous and moving song. This is the point where the album really hits its stride, and the next song ‘Professional Widow’ maintains the pace. It’s rather a shame that everyone will remember this song in its unrecognisably different EDM remix by Armand van Helden – because the original, an attack on Courtney Love is vitriolic and cutting. “Slag pit – stag shit – ah honey bring it close to my lips” she starts… this is a while before she starts yelling “starfucker”. Take another listen to the original – it’s really special.
‘Mr Zebra’ is a quiet little interlude that doesn’t feel out of place in a superb run of songs, which now hits its peak with the two best songs on the album. Actually, they are two of the best songs Amos has recorded. ‘Marianne’ is absolutely brilliant. This is another song with ludicrous lyrics (“tuna, rubber, a little blubber in my igloo”) but somehow this time you just know what Amos is singing about. The story of Maryanne Curtis, a girl with whom Amos went to school, who died of an overdose at 15 and who was rumoured to have committed suicide is sung heartbreakingly and emotionally, and the lyrical oddness just works. “I said Timmy and that purple monkey are all down at Bobby’s house…” just flows as Amos (who had never performed the song until the take we hear on the album) cuts right to our core. I don’t quite know why I crumple at “she could outrun the fastest slug” or “quickest girl in the frying pan”… but I do, every time. I simply adore ‘Marianne’. But I’m pretty fond of ‘Caught A Lite Sneeze’ too – this powerful, unusually percussion heavy song tells the tale of a failing relationship. “Didn’t know our love was so small” would seem to sum it all up.
‘Muhammed My Friend’ gives us the interesting concept of Jesus being a girl… fitting with the feminism and religion subtext to the album, and then we have the song that was the stone cold highlight of the album when it first was released. ‘Hey Jupiter’ has Amos, her piano and a million tons of emotion as we get another look at collapsing love – this time seen through the metaphor of planetary separation. The edge of desperation in the line “and this little masochist is lifting up her dress” is gutwrenching. She will do anything to keep this together, but she knows inside that it is doomed. I remember when Amos played this song at the Royal Albert Hall when she toured in support of the album. A memorable moment that will stay with me until the grave. I’m not sure ‘Hey Jupiter’ has aged as well as some of the songs on the album, to be honest: compared with ‘Marianne’ and ‘Caught A Lite Sneeze’ it now feels like a fairly standard piano ballad. And this is the point at which ‘Boys For Pele’ starts to ebb downhill. Compared to the precise nature of the first half of the album, songs such as ‘Agent Orange’, ‘Doughnut Song’ and ‘In The Springtime of His Voodoo’ never really struck the same kind of chord. There are some unexpected emotions in ‘Not The Red Baron’, which appears to be based on the Peanuts cartoons (mentioning Charlie Brown and his ‘wonderful dog’) but which actually sees Amos reach an epiphany that men can suffer too when relationships fail, and that women can be the victimisers as well as the victims. But the obvious highlight of the second half of the album, a song which could almost draw together everything that has gone before is the beautiful ‘Putting The Damage On’. The brass that ushers this song in is unexpected and all the more potent for that, and Amos gently leads us through a kind of summary of the break up with Fosse. “If I start seeing him as beautiful.. that he’s beautiful after all that happened” she said about the thoughts behind the song, and the lyric “You’re still so pretty when you’re putting the damage on” comes naturally from that. It’s lovely, and the sweetness of closing song ‘Twinkle’ works well, as it does not detract from the memories of ‘Damage’.
‘Boys For Pele’ is an uneven, overlong album, and Amos went on to release at least three albums that were its clear superior – ‘From The Choirgirl Hotel’ is right up there with ‘Little Earthquakes’ as her best album of the lot, ‘To Venus And Back’ benefited from the wondrous ‘1000 Oceans’ as its closing track and the 9/11 inspired ‘Scarlet’s Walk’ explored contemporary America in intriguing fashion. But as a marker of where Amos stood in her own personal life, ‘Boys For Pele’ is one of the most cathartic experiences I can recall in popular music. And amidst the sometimes shredding emotion and the camouflage, Amos crafted songs which will remain favourites of mine until the day I die. But then she has always had a knack for doing that.