In 2011, she opened her adaption of medieval song cycles with a heavy metal epic about domestic abuse, except the guitars and drums were replaced with woodwinds and a piano. It echoed the musical monuments of Led Zeppelin and evoked the classical music of Igor Stravinsky, the perfect introduction to an album about time travel and spirit guides. The song was “Shattering Sea.” That album was Night of Hunters. The song and album came to symbolize a return to form for one of the most intense and esoteric singers in modern history.
We speak, of course, of Tori Amos.
Her musical form, however, is that of a chameleon. Always unbowed by what she’s done before, 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines marks the return of Tori Amos’s focus on pure storytelling. Her ability to shift between musical styles is vastly underrated and too often gets compartmentalized into the “we’re too lazy to define it” category of adult contemporary.
Across the latter half of her career, Amos has alternated between albums that feel like real risks (Night of Hunters, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, American Doll Posse) and albums that are engineered for beauty and reassurance (Midwinter Graces, The Beekeeper). The former offer the highest highs and the lowest lows. They are thick with narrative. The latter occupy a middle ground content to lean on Amos’s voice. Their stories are almost too inwardly turned, and the emotion behind them can feel too thin or inaccessible.
Unrepentant Geraldines breaks the mold. Categorically, it feels like a “safe” entry, but it’s her most lyrically interesting album since Scarlet’s Walk and the most narratively accomplished one since From the Choirgirl Hotel. And if you’re an Amos fan, you don’t bring up Choirgirl lightly. Filled with mid-song twists and turns, her voice can still jump from a guttural stadium rock shred to a gently operatic soprano in a syllable.
Standout songs include “Wedding Day” and “Trouble’s Lament,” in which Amos depicts an anthropomorphized Trouble betrayed by Despair and evicted from Hell. I’d call the treatment Neil Gaiman-esque if she weren’t the one who’d set Gaiman down that storytelling path so long ago. Many songs have contemplated Trouble as an ironically constant companion in life. Few have empathized with and consoled Trouble during a time of hardship.
In “Wild Way,” Amos repeats, “I hate you, I hate you, I do,” with such a tone of yearning that the phrase is turned into one of unconditional love. A moment of internal monologue, it’s patiently emotional, personal yet accessible, trusting the listener to understand rather than hitting you over the head with pop melodrama.
“16 Shades of Blue” focuses on the treatment of women as always being too old for any life decision, contemplating Amos’s own place as an aging female artist and repeating criticisms of younger and younger women all the way back to the womb. As a commentary on women, it becomes a deeply biting commentary on men.
“Promise” features what’s becoming a compelling call-and-response duo between Amos and daughter Natasha Hawley. Unlike in Night of Hunters, Amos puts Hawley’s airy, pure voice as the lead, placing herself like a spirit in the background in a song about always being a part of each other.
It may not be as showy as some of her recent albums, but here Amos becomes a master storyteller once more for an entire album, not just for the highlight songs. Between this and Night of Hunters, these are her most exciting albums since the millennium was fresh. Throw in 2012’s reorchestration of earlier songs, Gold Dust, and the 51 year-old singer is hardly done yet. In the theme and quality of Unrepentant Geraldines, she demonstrates that – musically – she’s still at the top of her game. And, more importantly, it should be no surprise at all.
-Cleopatra Parnell & Gabriel Valdez
This article is part of our series on the Top 35 Albums of 2014. Click here to see the list as we unveil it!