In 1992, I started college. I listened to Little Earthquakes on repeat. I walked into a comic store for the first time in ages, leading me to pick up issue #5 of the “Brief Lives” storyline of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and buy it knowing nothing about what was going on, just that I’d never seen anything like it.
In 1996, I graduated college. I listened to Boys for Pele on repeat. I bought the very last issue of the main Sandman narrative, called “The Tempest.”
So three things together: college, Sandman, and the peak of my devotion to Tori Amos. I hadn’t realized until now just how perfectly they overlapped. It makes a lot of sense, though. I was probably at my most Sandman those four years: lots of black, buttondowns and vests, shoulder-length hair I often wore in a (sigh) ponytail, necklaces, the occasional coat of nail polish, and of course the pre-Matrix black trenchcoat. Plenty of White Wolf role-playing games and other general nerdery. Vertigo comics, including The Invisibles, Hellblazer, and Shade the Changing Man. V for Vendetta and Watchmen. And if you know anything about Tori, you know she namechecks Neil Gaiman and Neil namechecks her throughout much of this time. Their sensibility is the same — stories about real life and heavy concerns obscured and elucidated through larger-than-life, magical imagery. That’s always been my thing, too, but never more so than during those four years. I was perfect for those two, and they were perfect for me.
I’ve already talked briefly about Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. I got to see Tori live for the first time on the latter tour — hitched a ride with some role-playing friends, sat pretty close as I recall, was blown away. I don’t even know where to begin explaining how much I loved these two albums (still do, really). Each had one song that was slightly harder to listen to than the others: “Me and a Gun,” obviously, and then “The Waitress.” But even then I thought they were musically sound, just pretty intense in their circumstances and sentiments.
Boys For Pele is, let’s be clear, just as amazing. I listened to it just as much as I did the first two: into the Walkman, side one, flip, side two, flip, repeat. Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink have songs on them; Boys For Pele is a capital-A Album, structured and sequenced as a whole, and there’s something just a little bit eerier about it. It’s not just that the almost cartoonish aggression of “The Waitress” has multiplied and exploded (“Blood Roses,” “Professional Widow,” and several other tracks if you know where to look); there’s a barely concealed agony running throughout the album, a personal pain that we’ve seen before in more controlled forms (“Crucify,” “Precious Things”) but which here seems to have caught her off-guard and invaded songs where it wasn’t meant to belong. You’re more likely to see this thread if you know it’s a post-breakup album, but it’s hard to miss the loneliness in her voice on “Horses” and “Caught a Lite Sneeze,” and songs like “Marianne,” “Hey Jupiter,” “Not the Red Baron,” “Doughnut Song,” and “Putting the Damage On” are unmistakably mournful regardless of their actual subjects.
The subjects of the songs also became noticeably more difficult to decipher. She’d always been cryptic, even on the first album, but Pele takes this to new heights. I’m sure Tori’s example didn’t help the poetry I was writing at this time, in which I thought I could just write according to my own private book of symbols and memories and assume everyone else would just interpret according to their impressions. But it works for me. Even though I don’t know what to make of lines like “the weasel squeaks faster than a seven-day week,” I get that “Marianne” is about a childhood friend who died, maybe from suicide, and that the “I” of the song is remembering fleeting images from their friendship through grief. Between the music and the words, the feeling comes through, and there’s maybe no one who can do this like Tori.
The thing about Pele is it’s 18 tracks long. For the first time I could say of a Tori Amos album that I didn’t love all of it. “Professional Widow” doesn’t do much for me; “Little Amsterdam” really drags; “In the Springtime of His Voodoo” stumbles; a couple of the interludes (“Way Down,” “Agent Orange”) seem a little perfunctory. If these songs had shown up as B-sides, it might have been another story — the B-sides from the first two albums were incredible — but instead the B-sides we got scraped the barrel a bit. As my college career drew to a close, well, I still loved Tori (yes, I saw her live for this album, and yes, it was amazing again), but I started to quietly adjust my expectations.
The next album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, proved I was right to do so; now the great songs were exceptions, and apart from “Black-Dove (January),” “Jackie’s Strength,” “Northern Lad,” and “Playboy Mommy,” I don’t listen to it anymore. To Venus and Back was more consistent (highlights including “Concertina,” “Glory of the 80s,” and “Josephine”) but still featured skippables like “Juarez” and “Datura.” Strange Little Girls was more like Choirgirl (“Strange Little Girl,” “New Age,” “Rattlesnakes,” and maybe “Real Men”), and if it weren’t for the amazing Scarlet’s Walk, probably my favorite album from her latter period and in some respects my favorite overall, I probably would have given up on her at this point. But that album got me to buy The Beekeeper (generally decent, but “Witness” and “Hoochie Woman” are the worst) before the overall awfulness of American Doll Posse (verging on self-parody in title, sleeve art, concept, and self-indulgent song list) converted Tori from a buy-without-hearing favorite to someone I just stopped paying attention to. I haven’t bought any of her albums since. The magic’s gone; the garden’s closed, the gate’s locked. I can peek in but it doesn’t look like the place I used to visit. I can’t go home again.
But those early albums…the magic’s still there. That music’s still glorious and evocative and still sounds as fresh and original and stunning as the first time I put my friend’s tape into my player and heard “Crucify” or “Pretty Good Year.” I can’t go back to college, but I can reread Sandman, I can put on an early Tori album, and I can be lifted out of my life for just a little while into a place where everything that mattered to me back then is still lush and alive.
Plus I sing some pretty great harmonies when “Silent All These Years” is playing in the car, if I do say so myself. Come drive with me sometime and you’ll hear them.
Robyn Hitchcock, Moss Elixir
I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly what changed with this album, but Robyn’s approach changed just enough for me to sit up and take notice in a way I hadn’t in years. I think that after a few really good but fairly commercial-sounding albums, he suddenly sounded like he was writing music for himself again, and had married the best things about his early stuff with the best things about his later stuff. “Sinister But She Was Happy” is one of my favorite songs of his, and I also love “Filthy Bird” and “I Am Not Me.” This was the album he was touring for when I first saw him live, and the one where he seemed to glare straight at me as though asking “Why the fuck are you bouncing to ‘You and Oblivion’? You do know it’s about the death of my father, right?” Oops. I should really pay more attention to lyrics.
K, Kula Shaker
For about three months in 1996 I lived in the DC area and spent a lot of time and cash from my first grownup job buying Britpop albums from all the record stores I could find. This was one of them. It’s a really goofy album, but there are some pretty great riffs on it. It’s sort of like if a bunch of fourteen-year-old boys dressed up as members of the Beatles and the Stones and decided to write some songs, except they actually thought they were the Beatles and the Stones in some kind of timewarp supergroup. And actually sounded pretty good.
- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Murder Ballads
- The Auteurs, After Murder Park
- Weird Al Yankovic, Bad Hair Day
- Belle and Sebastian, Tigermilk
- The Cardigans, First Band on the Moon
- Pet Shop Boys, Bilingual
- Suede, Coming Up
- Catherine Wheel, Like Cats and Dogs
- R.E.M., New Adventures in Hi-Fi
- They Might Be Giants, Factory Showroom
- The Spice Girls, Spice
- Belle and Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister
- Rasputina, Thanks for the Ether
- Jane Jensen, Comic Book Whore