Releasing albums roughly every two years since 1992’s massive hit Little Earthquakes, a new Tori Amos record is, for better or for worse, not an uncommon occurrence. Her music has run the gamut, from early girl-with-a-piano rawness, arena electronic rock and acoustic-driven musings to, more recently, glam rock pastiche and brooding, synth-based ambiance. Building from the open-hearted honesty of her debut, Tori Amos has amassed one of the most impressive discographies of any artist over the last twenty years. The one thing, however, that she has never shied away from is concept, and its first truly successful fruition in the last ten years is Night of Hunters, out September 20 on Deutsche Grammophon Records.
As far back as Boys For Pele (1996), Amos has built her work on narrative structures as the foundation. In turn, these premises strive to mine deeper the emotional landscapes of her investigations, all the while (hopefully) providing cohesion. As is the case with concept records, some are brilliant examples of the intersection between music, poetry and theatre (Boys For Pele, Scarlet’s Walk) and some sink under the weight of bloated, unedited ideas whose excess serve to exhaust and frustrate rather than inspire (American Doll Posse, The Beekeeper). Her last offering, 2009’s solstice record Midwinter Graces was absolutely a step in the right direction, where Amos played musicologist in unearthing carols of old and reconfiguring them in novel ways. Night of Hunters builds on that momentum, but raises the bar back to the level of excellence for which she is known.
Deutsche Grammophon, the classical wing of Universal Music, commissioned Amos to create a twenty-first century song cycle rooted in the work of classical masters from the last 400 years. Adding to her already heavy workload (she’s currently writing a musical adaptation of The Light Princess, set to debut in London in spring 2012), Amos choose to take on the project, and it’s yielded terrific results. Night of Hunters cannot be claimed as a proper “comeback” record for her career, because it is more of a side project than a traditional pop record, but that in no way diminishes the power, immediacy and splendor of this album. Important, though, in digesting the work is to understand the paradigm shift from pop to classical, so those with an aversion to woodwinds or looking for a catchy hook better pass. But for those willing to dive in and adjust their perspective in moving forward, the benefits are many and varied.
In typical Amos fashion, the album focuses on the personal, chronicling the “shattering” of a relationship and its eventual regeneration over the course of a single night, from dusk until dawn. “Shattering Sea” opens the record with an alarming and ominous piano line before surging into a colossal buildup of frantic strings. First line “this is not my blood on the bedroom floor” matches the bold instrumental beginning, and Amos delivers the line with just the right ferocity. In fact, the song features some of Amos’ best vocal work in years, and thankfully that trend continues throughout much of Hunters.
The protagonist’s denial and refusal to accept blame in the relationship collapse is then met by Annabelle in “SnowBlind,” a shape-shifting creature that appears first as a fox. Annabelle proposes that perhaps in order to gain clarity in this situation, the narrator needs to suspend her mind and travel back (metaphorically, of course) into ancient times. Annabelle is played by Amos’ eleven year-old daughter Natashya, who gives a surprisingly remarkable performance as the album’s main plot device, in charge of advancing the story and teaching the protagonist how to mend the fragmented relationship.
The rest of the narrative is complicated and at times awfully obscure, which is initially a drawback to Hunters. While repeated (and repeated) listenings slowly unveil the intricacies of the journey, Amos’ poetry is often oblique to the point of frustration. Interesting, then, are the times when she chooses to be unabashedly literal, such as the line, “Since time, why do we women give ourselves away? Thinking somehow that will make him want to say.” It reeks of the type of blunt writing that marred much of American Doll Posse and Abnormally Attracted to Sin. However, taken in the context of her oeuvre, Amos has always vacillated between the esoteric and the direct (consider “Hey Jupiter” and “Bliss” as examples), but what has made this oscillation work so well is the emotional backbone to her craft. Thankfully, upon further listenings, Night of Hunters very much takes that shape, and thus the obscure and the literal merge together to serve the purpose of the story and dually provide a rich depth to the work.
Abandoning additional discussion of Hunters’ exposition temporarily, it’s critical to highlight the instrumental work on this album. Tori’s piano playing is unequivocally among the best of her career, deft in its dynamic attenuation while still establishing the foundation to the record. Trills, running arpeggios, staccato spectacles and adroit sense of mood demonstrate that Amos has lost nothing in her skill over the past twenty years, despite her recent indulgence of droning organs and rudimentary synth lines. Coupled with her prowess is the flexing of John Philip Shenale’s expertise in producing wonderfully complementary and stunning orchestrations. He handles the balancing act of incorporating strings and woodwinds alongside the piano tastefully and with grace. Shenale began working with Amos in 1994 for Under the Pink, but has never written anything since then to match the impressionist beauty of “Yes Anastasia,”– until Night of Hunters. The nearly four minute instrumental break in the middle of “Star Whisperer” is breathtaking in its intensity, and his approach to “Fearlessness,” “Edge of the Moon” and “Seven Sisters” both recall older works and set new standards for his aesthetic.
Another unexpected facet to Night of Hunters is that the ostensibly weaker tracks do not diminish when given continued spins. Whereas plenty of Amos’ recent material quickly lost its novelty appeal and became stale (“Maybe California,” “Ribbons Undone,” “You Can Bring Your Dog,” are a few examples), the songs on Hunters that don’t stand out as magnificent in the initial digestion actually gain in strength and stature after the record has marinated. At first, “Your Ghost,” “The Chase” and “Battle of Trees” seem slightly derivative, sappy and undeveloped. While it’s still baffling that Amos chooses to reference the Beatles in “Your Ghost,” thereby breaking the continuity of the narrative’s timelessness, her emotional investment matched with the mellifluous orchestration blossoms upon additional listens and rescues it from becoming a standard Tori Amos ballad. “Battle of Trees” can be sprawling and utterly obtuse, but once the listener becomes invested in the narrative substance of Hunters, the song becomes downright essential. Lastly, some of the lyrics of “The Chase” are irksomely obvious, such as “You must outcreate– it’s the only way! I am the hunter and the hunted, joined together.” Still, the menacing piano line and Natashya’s cool delivery uncovers a deliciously sinister side to the story.
For the potential downfalls on this record, there is such a surfeit of merit to Night of Hunters that it’s unfeasible to mention the totality. Even so, special focus must be paid to Amos’ daughter, Natashya, as she imparts one of the most superlative vocal moments on the album in “Job’s Coffin.” Her timbre and understanding of subtlety in her singing, evidenced in her rhythmic dynamic, demonstrate her capability, even at a young age. “Star Whisperer” contains the fan-beloved “other side of the mountain” melody, one of her career’s most engaging refrains. Finally, “Seven Sisters,” Amos’ first strictly studio album instrumental, is a mercurial and arrestingly beautiful work, featuring her piano and Andreas Ottensamer’s whimsical and elegant clarinet. Setting the stage for the closing of Hunters narrative, “Seven Sisters” acts as the ideal couplet with ending track “Carry.”
In Amos’ press release for 2009’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin, she takes umbrage with the MP3 culture, referring to the new wave of music consumers as a “generation fed on small meals made with cheap ingredients.” This flippant dismissal of the devotees of iTunes and digital music smacked of arrogance, especially when paired with an album that failed to deliver on its many promises. The incongruous nature between Tori as public figure and Tori as musician over the past six years has been vexing and disheartening. On Night of Hunters, though, Amos’ full concern is on creating a work that both respects the canons of classical masters and is innovative in its modern approach. Unencumbered by a political agenda, Amos has delivered the most absorbing, forceful and captivating record since 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk. Hopefully this side project for Deutsche Grammophon doesn’t stay relegated as such, but rather reinvigorates Amos to produce music that stays true to her craft and vision. The story of lovers with a shape-shifting creature sidekick is perfectly satisfactory, but in the end it’s the music that endures. Thankfully, this time Tori Amos is wholly tuned into that frequency and has written a venerable tour de force.