Dear Tori Amos,
It’s me again. Remember when I wrote you that letter in Italy, but I never made it to the concert to give it to you? And then I brought it to your show in Toronto instead? I’m sorry about that letter, and I hope you didn’t read it, or this one, because it’s kind of mean.
I was really into you, Tori. We all were. Because of how much you meant to me, all those years ago, I still feel obliged to listen to everything you release. I’m sorry, but the last one I could bring myself to listen to a lot was 2007’s American Doll Posse. Last year, you took a classical turn, basing a song cycle about the end of a bad relationship between, like, the ocean and the land, I guess, on 500 years of piano compositions. It wasn’t unlistenable.
So, it was a good idea, after adapting more of your back catalog to orchestra and strings during your last tour, to release some of those adaptations as a record, in collaboration, as usual, with John Philip Shenale, and with the Metropole Orchestra. You’ve found yourself, now, in so comfortable a position, that you can release whatever you want, and most of the songs you’ve written in the past ten years have been about things occurring in your political-spiritual mythology, rather than your 1990s relatable nonsense.
Which brings us to Gold Dust, a compilation of selected songs from your catalog, re-recorded with a full orchestra, commemorating the 20th anniversary of your first release, Little Earthquakes. There are 4 songs from that era on here, 2 from the next album, and then one if any from then until now, except the aforementioned Posse. It still seems odd to me when you include songs from the last five years as if they were just as worth listening to, but I understand how enjoyable complete self-absorption can be. Some of those songs do continue Little Earthquakes’ thematic trifecta of childhood, sex, and Christianity.
Gold Dust opens with “Flavor”, some kind of weird cosmic-quantum mixed metaphor, from your recent, terrible Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Actually, this recording made me give it the second listen that I couldn’t give it when you put it out, because you produce in a way that made it sound boring no matter what.
“Yes, Anastasia,” the second track, was first released as the epic last track on Under the Pink, already had full orchestral backing, and was twice as long. Why would I listen to this version instead of the original, Tori? Why? No reason, that’s why.
“Jackie’s Strength,” too allusive to sum up in a clause, from 1998’s from the choirgirl hotel, was a good pick, though, especially because you enunciate much better on this recording. “Cloud on my Tongue”, a sexual awakening song again from 1994’s Under the Pink, expands well into the baroque orchestral framework, but isn’t very memorable.
I was very excited to hear the orchestrated “Precious Things,” a song that has been a violent core to your live set since 1991. I like what the horns are doing, sometimes, but the strings usually just follow the piano. You had an opportunity to extend this feminist rock anthem’s chaos into a Stravinsky-esque tempest, but it’s disappointingly restrained.
Then the title track, “Gold Dust,” which, again, was already better orchestrated on Scarlet’s Walk. You’ve just sung the harmony sometimes and kind of dragged the tempo and made phrases sound more important than your voice is making them. Fail. Then, oh my god, you put a song from your Christmas album on here. It just doesn’t… I don’t… oh, apparently that’s how you started working with the Metropole Orchestra. Fair enough.
But let’s look at some redeeming tracks. “Winter” is a timeless Little Earthquakes bit of nostalgia, that takes well to the orchestra, though, again, the orchestra sounds ashamed to do anything during vocals, adding only a few accents and chords when obvious and between verses.
“Flying Dutchman,” an early b-side inspired by your geeky buddy, has probably gained the most in emotional delivery in years of performance, and rides fantastically to operatic vastness on the orchestra’s cinematic aura. This is when we feel where the underlying theme of childhood potential warped by social norms coming out. You’re making me cry like you used to, here, Tori. If only you had used more of your songs that, like this one, you felt you could expand compositionally, rather than simply feeling obliged to re-record with little additional arrangement.
All I’ll say about “Programmable Soda” and “Snow Cherries from France” is that I guess they kind of fit, what with all the food imagery. You’d have done better leaving them off, although I admit I can’t find anything so theatrical from the same eras to replace them.
On the bright side, you’ve completely excluded 2005’s The Beekeeper.
We’re all really glad you put “Marianne” on there, too, and let the orchestra do its job for a formerly spare requiem for a teenage suicide. But you yield again to the sense of obligation with your calling card “Silent All These Years” – it’s not actually disappointing, just not more than expected, and not a song that needs to be more than voice and piano.
I’m going in order because you’ve clearly arranged everything as a coming of age story, and that, at least, works, especially as it ends on a less than triumphant note, with “Girl Disappearing.” Probably, the story you’re telling is about your own relationship to classical composition, fallout from your experience at Peabody, to which you were admitted at 5 but softly expelled at 11 when you wouldn’t stop playing pop music. This is an album about a little girl. And now I realize the current personal meaning of this narrative: Your daughter is hitting adolescence and you’re closing a decade of observing the little girl from the outside. These thematic structures always made your live shows intellectually compelling.
Now that I’ve been listening to you again for like two hours, you can see I’m getting that super-serious introspection going on again. I’m starting to care about The Tori Universe, and therefore starting to sound as dramatically fluffy as you do. I can’t imagine someone not already raised on you to do the same. I appreciate that this album can work as an introduction to your songs as compositions, and I’m glad you chose fear*. I can’t seem to get that enthused one way or another about this album, though. You’re not as intense about some of the things in your old songs that you could be. But you’re not trying quite as hard to make little-remembered minor angst a big deal, either. My verdict is that it’s okay.
Thanks for not reading this,