Tori Amos has been making music for over 19 years, and making me feel old in the process. With 12 studio albums, countless singles, and 8 Grammy awards, she’s positioned herself near the top of the musical heap. Her latest effort, Night of Hunters, supposedly showcases a departure from her usual style. How much? Let’s compare it with her debut, Little Earthquakes, and see what we can find.
I’ll be a little more honest here than usual before I start: it’s very hard to review an artist and album that you discovered as you were trying to discover yourself, as (at least for me) your feelings about that artist and album are tied tightly to your own personal zeitgeist. Though she released the album in 1992, I didn’t discover Little Earthquakes until 1995 in the middle of (what else?) a break-up with my first serious girlfriend, coincidentally also the person who introduced me to Tori (we fans call her by her first name, since we all know her so well). The emotionally powerful lyrics’ rough edges meshed with the near-flawless piano playing to resonate in my soul; I doubt this album would have touched me in the same way if things in my life had been going, well, better.
My own personal life events aside, Tori’s (see?) Little Earthquakes makes for a very powerful debut. Its tracks feel less like songs solely for radio play or comments on life events that may or may not have actually happened, and more like glimpses at the events as they happen. Tori seems to have wrapped so much of herself into this album, her musical style tailored to fit the music’s subject matter. Each song grabs you, shakes you, makes you listen, smacks you in the face with its importance. “Me and a Gun” makes you feel like you’re there with her on that dark street. “Winter” and “Mother” showcase the complex relationship that she had with her parents while talking about very personal aspects of other timely relationships. “Silent All These Years” puts us in a kitchen with her and her boyfriend as they talk and argue and calm down and hash out everything that seems important to them. And “Precious Things”? Well, just listen.
Night of Hunters
And now, 19 years later, she gives us an album that, while touted by some as “[t]he latest addition to Amos’s series of ground-breaking recordings,” supposedly re-imagines classical chamber and orchestral music from some of the world’s greatest composers. What’s more, she enlists the help of well-regarded classically trained musicians and works with the German-based classical music record label Deutsche Grammophon to, I assume, get the purest sound imaginable for her vision:
“I have used the structure of a classical song cycle to tell an ongoing, modern story. The protagonist is a woman who finds herself in the dying embers of a relationship. In the course of one night she goes through an initiation of sorts that leads her to reinvent herself, allowing the listener to follow her on a journey to explore complex musical and emotional subject matter. One of the main themes explored on this album is the hunter and the hunted and how both exist within us.”
Which, you know, fine. She’s a well established artist who hardly needs anyone’s permission to make high-concept albums based on moderately cerebral themes, least of all the permission of a hack music reviewer living in Seattle and writing for a geeky pop culture web site. That said, if she had asked me about this project, I would have probably put on Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink, or, hell, even From the Choirgirl Hotel and said, “Dear, please, do something more like this. Maybe not exactly like this, but, still. Please?”
Obviously, my phone never rang, and so this album got made.
And I just sat at my computer for about five minutes trying to think of the kindest thing I could say about this album. I came up with “derivative.”
To illustrate, here is a track from Night of Hunters, entitled “Edge of the Moon”:
Here is the movement from the piece on which she based the previous track (the second movement of J.S. Bach’s Sonata in E-flat major for flute or recorder and harpsichord):
Tori? Dear? Except for your lyrics and that bridge you added in the middle? These two songs are pretty much identical. You didn’t re-imagine or re-interpret anything. Stop kidding yourself and, further more, stop trying to kid us.
In broader terms, this album feels almost diametrically opposed to her debut album in terms of emotion. Tori seems to make no attempt to hide her feelings on Little Earthquakes; if she’s feeling anything on Night of Hunters, I can’t tell. She plays the songs well and is supported outstandingly by her classical “session musicians,” but… I just don’t feel anything. To be honest, the song above is just a song that I picked at random on the album for illustrative purposes. “Edge of the Moon” doesn’t resonate with me in any way: it isn’t offensive or grand. It’s pedestrian, ordinary, almost cold and distant. Which makes me a more than a little sad.
Verdict: This is probably the memory of my 20-year-old self talking, but I think you should probably stay away from Night of Hunters. Remember Tori as she was, not as she is now.