If you ask twelve different people about Tori Amos, you’ll get twelve different opinions. Some see her as the it-girl of alternative 1990s music. Some see her as an even more cuckoo for cocoa puffs Kate Bush. Some see her as a deft poet, tying together various subconcepts and using them to explore larger concepts like time and nature itself. Some see her as needlessly pretentious, an overdramatic hippie who spouts nonsense trying to sound like wisdom. Myself? I’m amazingly impartial to Tori Amos. But I can see sides from all camps on her newest album, Native Invader.
If you dislike Tori Amos, you’re going to hate this album–but then again, you probably knew that already. Native Invader is peak Tori Amos. The instrumentations and arrangements of some songs sound straight from the 1990s. Though she didn’t perform at Lilith Fair herself, the 1990s alternative sound emblematic of that time lingers through her songs, whether in the guitars or the synthesizer. For long-established artists, it’s always hard to strike the balance between ‘familiar and expected, though a bit dated’ and ‘a modern sound, though slightly unrecognizable.’ Amos does a beautiful job knitting together the inherently 1990s sound of her music with modern trends, arrangements, and instrumentations. It still sounds 1990s. But Native Invader doesn’t sound dated.
When Amos is good, she’s amazing. Amos’s strengths are in her lyrics, where she takes concepts and ideas, teasing and pulling them out into long strands of metaphors making literary and cultural references all across the spectrum. Familiar concepts are expressed in a cryptic way, a delightful puzzle for people to unravel and figure out what she’s saying. One of the highlights of the album, “Bang,” is a sprawling ode of creation. In contrast to some of her more lilting, light material, “Bang” starts out strong, with harsh piano, heavy guitar, and strong percussion in the first few seconds, occasionally peeking in through the more gentle piano line. Amos’s voice is as light and fluid as it ever is, so the contrast is even more pronounced and even more magnificent. The song ends with a repeated line (“All I wanna be is the very best machine I can be”) sung over a litany of elements. A beautiful guitar line pushes past the
However, occasionally Amos dips into the bad coffee shop beat session, kooky fruit loops image that her detractors view cast her as. There’s no gentle way to put this: I absolutely hated “Chocolate Song.” The lyrics are deliberately kooky, her phrasing annoyingly pretentious, and the overall mood is far too childish. There is absolutely no way to deliver the lyric “we used to make happy” in any way that gives meaning to the song. “Chocolate Song” features an odd arrangement of the ‘chorus’, chosen in a way to emphasize it’s oddness over it’s musicality. Likewise, instrumentation choices ruin other songs. The bongo drums and other percussion instruments of “Bats” minimize the beautiful lyrics by pairing them up with a sound from an elementary school classroom or a beat poetry reading.
With Native Invader, Tori Amos stays true to form. Fans will love it, detractors will loathe it. It’s predictable, yet good. Amos hits all of the Tori Amos beats but manages to give a final product that’s more than the sum of its parts. Find somewhere quiet, pull up genius.com for the lyrics (because you’ll DEFINITELY need it), and get yourself lost in a listen.