59:01 min • Mercury Classics • May 12, 2014
Andrew Darley reviews
One can only imagine the array of wayward doubts and potential stresses that an artist may feel after accomplishing a twenty-year career, and with thirteen albums in their repertoire. Unrepentant Geraldines is Tori Amos’ fourteenth album and is sort of a happy accident. By 2010, the prolific singer-composer felt that she had taken her brand of contemporary pop as far as it could go and needed to tap into a new vein creatively. She jumped ship and her new course lead her to interpret a classical song cycle via a seasonal album. On 2011’s Night of Hunters she revisited her background in classical music and reimagined works by Debussy, Bach and Chopin. Her collaboration with new label Deutsche Grammophon gave her a taste of classical composition and led her to sail further afield. She reworked a handful of songs from her discography with an ensembled orchestra to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her illustrious debut, Little Earthquakes. However, possibly the most intense voyage she committed herself to has been The Light Princess for London’s National Theatre, in which she wrote an entire musical score and co-wrote lyrics fit for theatre performance. It appears that all these stimulating creative experiences has flourished her approach to music, as she wrote songs privately, parallel to all her other projects, without realizing that she had the basis of a new body of work in front of her.
Her last album within the pop realm was 2009’s Abnormally Attracted To Sin, a record about the oppressive shame society allows us to feel in our lives. It’s interesting then that Unrepentant Geraldines thematically picks up exactly where that album signs off. In the interim, she has found a new resolve and is unashamedly being true to herself. What is immediately perceptible about the album is its production. ‘America’ opens the album with piano and acoustic guitar, recorded in a way that sound organic and uplifting. It’s a welcome variation as some of her songs since 2007’s American Doll Posse contained airtight production, which made songs feel compressed and thin at times. Thus, when the Beatlesque middle-8 arrives in ‘America’, it sounds big and brash and makes you sit up and listen. The instruments breathe on this album, as does her voice.
Although its title comes from the song of the same name, the record could have equally been called ’16 Shades of Blue’. It’s a crux of the album as she faces her fear right in the face of becoming older. Its lyrics speak of her internalized ageism of being “too old to play” that she has had to overcome in her career as she passes 50. However, the pulling aspect of the song lies in the way she challenges ageist pressures projected on people throughout their entire lives:
See over there at 33, she fears she’ll lose her job
because they hear the ticking of her clock.
At only 15, I said 15, they say her future’s bleak
“She should have started this at 3” –
It’s a striking moment as she reveals an honest insight into her own self-perception and the unrealistic notions society holds up. Her lyrics sustain a deep authority on issues that she has explored before in her music (love and its nexus, religion, politics, and sexuality). They are written with a new lens of insight in which she is able to explore them in a mature and compassionate way.
The musical palette she plays with is also as various as her subjects. From Americana, electronic music and her signature stripped piano-and-voice aesthetic, the record trips on many musical styles and represents her as an artist today, as well as her canon of work. ‘Giant’s Rolling Pin’ features a billowing organ as her unmistakable sense of humour, which pops up throughout her catalogue, to encourage someone to roll “the truth out” for a pie that “the whole world can dig in”. Elsewhere, ‘Promise’ is a vowing duet between herself and her daughter Tash, whose voice has matured, now enriched since her earlier feature on Night Of Hunters. On ‘Oysters’ Tori goes for the jugular with her voice and piano. It’s laden with lofty melodies and a latent sadness in which she sings out of a swirling, transcending way. She succinctly puts how she has been feeling over past years and her revitalized spiritual freedom – “I’m working my way back to me again”.
Tori boxed clever in taking the risk of the classical work for the sake of her own her own creativity and refusing to become complacent in her work. She is in a position where she does not need to prove herself to anyone as an artist. She has harboured and nurtured a militantly dedicated fanbase who have stayed with her throughout every album cycle and the sonic changes they brought. The element that radiates through this album is that she is proving things for herself. Regardless of her age, she is a musician with an unshakeable desire to create and follow her muses – whatever way they take her. Yet it is bludgeoning clear that this spirit that has brought her through three decades of music. Unrepentant Geraldines’ motif of unashamedly being who you are and where you stand in the world is enriched by her wisdom, life experience and her self-sufficient sense of empowerment. Tori Amos is the most unrepentant of them all.