Another confession: I didn't want to like the dewy-eyed, flame-haired singer-songwriter-pianist when I heard her solo debut, 1992's Little Earthquakes. That breathy, tremulous soprano, the twinkly piano lines and frilly string arrangements, those cryptic yet confessional lyrics -- my intellect protested this precious intimacy. Her fans didn't thrill me either: Most of the ones I had met were either barefoot granola girls with hairy armpits or sexually ambiguous guys. Amos has been accused in the press of being melodramatic and opaque, written off as quirky and flaky because of her idiosyncratic style (not to mention the much ballyhooed business of thanking "fairies" in her liner notes). But her strange charm gradually won me over. A dynamic vocalist who makes up in emotion what she lacks in strength and range, Amos's complex metaphors began to make sense to me only after repeated listenings; the enticingly eccentric, almost outre melodies got under my skin. As a pianist of astounding talents, Amos can make the instrument sound menacing, tender, tentative, or fleeting. That emotional purity finally brought tears to my eyes.
Like many debuts, Little Earthquakes is steeped in vivid memories of adolescent achings. The urgent "Precious Things" and sympathetic "Girl" deal with being repressed and rejected as a less-than-beautiful young girl, while the ballads "Winter" and "Mother" are bittersweet odes to her parents that explore both their love and their shortcomings. It's clear Amos has come a long way from the timorous yet rebellious Methodist minister's daughter, and she chronicles those growing pains in songs like the hit single "Crucify" and "Silent All These Years," about discovering her poetic and musical voice. She also picks at the politics of love (a subject that gains momentum on her later records) in "China," "Leather," and "Tear in Your Hand." Then there's the song that catapults the listener to the most harrowing time in Amos's life -- "Me and a Gun," a painfully vivid a capella account of the rape she suffered several years ago and its aftermath. It is this song that established her as one of the foremost feminist songwriters of the Nineties. The album's only real drawback is that Amos buries her piano -- her strongest suit -- under standard pop/rock group arrangements; ironic, considering Amos's statement that it was her only means of expression for so many years.
Her 1994 album Under the Pink proved that she could streamline her sound and refine her lyrical prowess while continuing her evolution from repressed girl suffering the constraints of a strict religious upbringing to free-spirited woman and artist. Throughout the album she passes strong judgment on herself and the people in her life, teasing apart the misguided intentions of her friends, boyfriends, parents, and religious leaders. Amos has always written about characters who are obviously projections of herself at various times. In Under the Pink she takes that technique further with twelve narrative songs sharing the theme of betrayal among women. "Bells for Her," "The Wrong Band," "The Waitress," "Cornflake Girl," and "Yes, Anastasia" all present Amos as the betrayer or the betrayed, and plumb the nuances of jealousy and betrayal among sisters, friends, and co-workers. The young protagonists in "Pretty Good Year" and "Past the Mission" face coming-of-age experiences, turning points in their lives that cause a permanent loss of innocence; meanwhile Amos speaks in the first person in "Baker Baker" (about a defunct love affair) and "Icicle" (about her sexual awakening).
The album yielded Amos's most popular song to date, the controversial, feedback-loaded hit "God," an indictment of patriarchal religion that has become her trademark. Under the Pink also uses simplified arrangements, as her piano takes a more dominant position among acoustic and electric guitars, drums, bass, and strings.
Earlier this spring, Amos released Boys for Pele (the title of which can be interpreted as a call for human sacrifice to the Hawaiian goddess of fire and creation). The first album she has produced on her own (without the help of co-producer/former boyfriend Eric Rosse), it focuses almost exclusively on her relationships with men, including the Man Upstairs; she continues to tackle most of the major religions of the world (all of which just happen to be patriarchal). On the hit single "Caught a Lite Sneeze," Amos sings of reclaiming her inner goddess after a particularly draining breakup: "I need a big loan from the girl zone." On the delicate "Horses," the medieval "Blood Roses," the tender "Hey Jupiter," and the epic "Putting the Damage On," she struggles with the confusion and pain of love lost. Surprisingly, she even asks for divine help on "Mohammed, My Friend": "Teach me how to love my brothers who don't know the law." By the end of Boys, she is admiring a woman who killed the man that spurned her in "Twinkle."
Boys is adventurous in its sparse construction, with Amos pounding not only on her Bssendorfer but also playing a mean harpsichord (strings, New Orleans funeral-procession brass, and gospel choirs round out the sound to good effect). And if any criticism can be leveled at Amos's music, it is that she is immensely self-indulgent (Boys is eighteen songs long). But that condition seems to be a product of magnifying one's emotions: Amos has a lot in common with Kurt Cobain, Michael Stipe, and Trent Reznor, all songwriters who examine every nuance of every emotion and obsess over the details until they're all wrestled onto tape. Amos has been described as writing from the womb, but she actually writes from the same place as every other songwriter -- her heart and head. (No one ever says that guys write from the prostate).
The pridefully individualistic Amos has said that she doesn't feel labeled. Rather, she says her femaleness is what defines her music. That's likely the reason the male-dominated media find it so easy to discredit her. True, she may be given to musical histrionics that sometimes frighten people away at first. And yes, the serious content of her lyrics is often obscured by whimsy and abstraction. But the lush expressiveness is in the sound -- the resonant beauty of her piano and the crystalline quiver of her voice. Ultimately, it is this disturbing intimacy, this overwhelming privacy, that makes her music so compelling.
Tori Amos performs on Tuesday, October 22, and Wednesday, October 23, at the Jackie Gleason Theater of the Performing Arts, 1700 Washington Ave, Miami Beach, 673-7300, with Josh Clayton-Felt. Tickets cost $24.75. Showtime is 8:00.