Night of Hunters
71:38 min • Deutsche Grammophon • September 19, 2011
Original, inventive, and brilliant, Night of Hunters is a Tori Amos album that is unlike anything she has done before. This is not to say it’s not immediately recognisable as a Tori Amos production. It’s not a band record but an acoustic one, featuring string quartet, clarinet, oboe, horn, flute, bassoon and signature piano, with songs that draw on the standards of classical music. What is notable is that the album bridges the gap between the popular and the classical. It is complex but approachable, rich yet digestible. Amos’ adaptability as a musician makes this, her twelfth studio album, as distinctive as anything she has ever done.
‘Shattering Sea’ is a heady adrenaline fuelled opener, full of the drama suggested by the track’s title. The urgency of the strings recall Stravinsky, and immerse the listener in a soundscape that verges on the cinematic. The story begins with the tantalising hook:
That is not my blood on the bedroom floor.
That is not the glass that I threw before.
There is a narrative to be followed and this guides the listener through the shifts in tempo and musical themes that shape the album. ‘Shattering Sea’ repeatedly swells, breaks apart and reforms like oil shifting on water, climaxing with a crescendo that is so akin to panic that it’s exhilarating.
Conversely, this is followed by ‘Snowblind’, which drifts on a subdued meandering piano. The song introduces a second character to the narrative, Anabelle, sung by Natashya Hawley, Tori’s daughter. Anabelle is her guide through the experiences of the night.
Tori Amos has always arranged the ideas on her albums around organising themes. Night of Hunters takes this further. The unifying narrative is the story of a couple whose relationship has fractured, and it takes place from dusk till dawn. The timelessness of the story is informed both by the mythological parallels in the lyrics, and a musical foundation built on 400 years of classical music. There is a shock of recognition in ‘Star Whisperer’, a variation on Schubert’s ‘Piano Sonata in A Major’, in ‘Battle of Trees’, which employs the melody of Satie’s ‘Gnossiene no.1’, and again in ‘Cactus Practice’, which draws on Chopin’s ‘Nocturne, Op. 9’. The songs are contemporary variations on a theme, and use this tradition to bridge the gap between mainstream pop and classical. This is, in fact, at the heart of the story of Night of Hunters.
He’ll play a Beatles tune
me more a Bach fugue
Is there such a great divide
between your world and mine?
They can both purify
and heal what was cut and bruised.
It’s a deft process that is testament to Amos’ skill as a musician. ‘Fearlessness’ epitomises this technique. It is an onomatopoeic track that tumbles on a wind of strings and invokes the spirit of ‘Gold Dust’ from Scarlet’s Walk. It is a rich, intricate track that knits Granados’ 1890 solo piano piece ‘Orientale’ from 12 Spanish Dances into a song structure that, whilst remaining true to its origins, is definitively Tori Amos.
‘Star Whisperer’, a song in three parts, fuses the music with the mythical narrative. It is, as Amos sings it, “Forged of fire and song”. Lyrically it’s extremely evocative. Musically it pushes the notion of song structure to its limit. This approach is both metaphoric and literal. The song questions what the limits are when a relationship starts to fall apart. ‘Job’s Coffin’, and the subsequent tracks, sound the answer. This signals the start of the return journey through the song cycle.
And cyclic is what it is. Each song feels linked whilst maintaining its own identity. The melancholic ‘Edge of the Moon’, for instance, plays out the idea of Bach vs. The Beatles, following the lyric from the preceding track, ‘Your Ghost’. As a result the album maintains a consistency unworkable within the confines of mainstream pop (and the consequent demands of the music industry tsars). As the initiated will testify, most of Tori Amos’ catalogue is conceptual, yet Night of Hunters is to date her most fully realised both musically and thematically.
The very idea of the song-cycle seems to have disturbed the equilibrium of many reviewers. It’s as if Amos is just asking too much, and so there are grumbles about it being too ambitious, too complex, and conclusions that it is a failed experiment (this last point thrown in to show the reviewer can understand the complexity but just does not approve of it). Whatever. If you are interested in the thematic structure, both musically and lyrically, it is there to be explored. And if you’re not you have an album of strikingly original, beautiful songs. The real challenge, it would seem, is not in the work itself but in the expectations of the work. In the final analysis it’s a critic’s job to start with what a thing is, not what it is not. That said, this is a difficult album to review, and not because it is a difficult album but because it is such an unusual album.
T.S. Eliot, who made use of the same mythological narratives in his work, made the point that poetry should communicate before it is understood, that the reader should first hear the music, which should carry the sense of the words. This is what Night of Hunters achieves. It has a depth that makes it continually interesting and exciting on repeated listens. It is an album to both feel and think your way through, but to do that you first need to surrender to it.
After twelve studio albums Tori Amos stills sounds fresh, and can still surprise. There are not many contemporary artists who can lay claim to that. Night of Hunters is the extraordinary work of a master architect. Its beauty lies in the very intricacy of its design; and it is a beauty equal to that which you would find in any cathedral, whether it be built of stone or sound.