Tori Amos Boys For Pele (1996)
Originally published on londonpeaky.com
Photo By Cindy Palermo
Let's preface this by stating that the notion of being consigned to a desert island sits very comfortably with me – I'm a fan of solitude; I seek it out, require it in abundance. So I'm unfairly advantaged re: the assigned task. The other thing is, though, that I also rather like silence. I think a common misconception re: musicians is that they listen to music all the time. Many of those close to me – composers primarily – say they require vast periods of silence, given their/our heads are heaving with musical data most hours of the day. Much of my own composition occurs in my head and I'm an insomniac through often being ill-equipped to wind down its gears.
This makes choosing a desert island disc a complex procedure. Also, if I could choose tundra over palms and vinyl over CD that would be great. Thanks. Anyway:
I've chosen Tori Amos' third album, Boys For Pele from 1996 – the first to be produced by Amos herself – over contenders such as Faith No More's Angel Dust and Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile – because whilst both of those are its equal, if I'm permitted only one record as my island companion, compassion should be one of the many emotions cleft to its bosom. Angel Dust is a gnashing psycho-carousel of cynicism and caricature and The Fragile whilst buoyantly psychedelic would likely at some point nudge me gloomily into La Mer itself. Besides, there are enough jibes at Trent on Boys For Pele that one could pretend he'd hitch-hiked to the island with you. Boys For Pele, whilst navigating vast and often difficult emotional and conceptual territories, holds you in compassion while it does so. Unless you're either Trent Reznor or Courtney Love, but this isn't about them.
The bulk of Boys For Pele was recorded in a church in Ireland and that spatio-acoustic specificity enshrines the record in a way that I would think grounding whilst marooned, a church historically being a place of solace, irrespective of whether one is burdened by either faith or its absence. Also when Tori's athlete vocals keen vertiginously up to the crazier registers, bouncing off the stone walls, one can hear the acoustic reflections writ beautifully large, and with the spiritual sonar of a supplicant, project oneself into the cloisters. You can recreate around you the architecture of its making. It was recorded to tape too so we're promised extra warmth. No digital hubris, airless pathways or 3D-printed compression. Parts of the record were also recorded in New Orleans so we have the diabolical repped as boldly as the sacred – classic Tori Amos, the insurrectionist daughter of a minister.
A desert island record should surely be something one can endlessly return to and thus we're concerned with density of information - and with nuance. And with complexity across the emotional, intellectual and philosophical fields. Pele boasts all of these. Mark Hawley, Tori's sound engineer and husband of nearly thirty years has stated that one facet of their approach to making Pele was stripping back on the production, thus allowing the arrangements and performances to shine, and certainly I've rarely heard such dynamic, ingenious (and to a fellow keyboard evangelist - frankly intimidating) pianism as this. Across its consummately bat-shit eighteen tracks we get Courtney Love-baiting harpsichord punk (“Give me peace, love and a hard cock.”), ayahuasca-induced Luciferan visions laced through baroque'n'roll etudes, doomy neo-classical heartbreak, gospel choirs, colliery brass bands, and some of the most arresting vivisections of the human heart ever performed on the surgery table of modern balladry. Virtuosity is meaningless without spirit and vision to carry it and she exorcises all three in abundance: the ballet of her fingers across multiple keyboards is charismatic as fuck and even though I've been a friend of this record's for over twenty years I'm not even close to exhausting its capacity to surprise and enthral, so intricately rendered are its frescoes. In fact the more I listen, the deeper it gets, like peering into a well and realising it leads to the ocean.
As for the lyrics – she's simultaneously at her most direct and most elusive here – a hypnagogic poetess hitting peak powers.
Some of my favourite lines:
You told me last night/
You were a sun now/
With your very own devoted satellite/
Happy for you and I am/
Sure that I hate you/
Two suns too many/
Too many able fires
− Doughtnut Song
I'm trying not to move/
It's just your ghost passing through
− Putting The Damage On
Now you've cut out the flute/
From the throat of the loon
− Blood Roses
And then there's impenetrable strangeness in lines such as “Tuna rubber, little blubber in my igloo” from Marianna which while alienating some listeners at the time I think actually makes perfect desert island fodder. If we have to ruminate upon one cultural artefact for all of eternity, please let it not read like PD James. Boys For Pele is the equivalent of John Dee's obsidian scrying glass, letting angels and demons through with egalitarian zeal but only on a tourist visa. Tori is far too accomplished, respectful and hygienic a spiritual negotiator to practice without due diligence...
It's also at its core just a shockingly beautiful record. Hearing beautiful instruments playing beautiful music beautifully is one of the most rarefied privileges in the known universe. Oh, and one of the press shots depicts her standing defiantly between a burning piano and a petrol station. And the album art: our heroine suckles a piglet on a veranda, flanked by a dead blue cock(erel) and some ghostly infants, brandishing a shotgun. Little wonder she was reputedly “too intense” for Trent Reznor.
Impressionistic, stateless, timeless, fearless, labyrinthine and beautiful: the perfect talisman for long-distance mental travel. In fact, can I go there now please?