Misunderstood upon its release, Boys for Pele is Tori Amos’ magnum opus
Original release date: 22 January, 1996
On its release at the start of 1996, Tori Amos’ third album was met with responses that ranged from bafflement to outright derision within the music industry. It was the follow-up to 1994’s Under the Pink, a transatlantic best-seller that had spawned a breakthrough radio hit in the whimsically catchy Cornflake Girl. But instead of building on this, Amos had delivered a dark, uncompromising 70-minute opus in which she had stripped her music down and her soul bare – while almost entirely abandoning traditional pop song structure and lyrical directness.
Amos’ label, Atlantic, were horrified; critics, sensing that she had escaped the “confessional singer-songwriter” pigeonhole but unable to pin down exactly where she had gone, lashed out in confusion by dismissing the album as “self-indulgent” and “obtuse”. Throughout the first two months of her world tour to promote Boys for Pele, Amos has said that she was told to cancel her shows and go back into the studio.
Ploughing on was an act of faith in a record so raw that Amos would describe it as a “blood-letting”. The collapse of her relationship with former co-producer Eric Rosse had informed much of its genesis, but the fire of Amos’ cathartic rage was as rapacious as the Hawaiian volcano goddess who gave the album its title. Boys for Pele is nothing short of a full-scale purge of patriarchal repression aimed squarely at its sources of power – religion, history, politics, community – manifest in music which is both the sparsest and most confrontational of her career.
All of this makes it easy to cast Boys for Pele as a difficult record, but the actual listening experience is more complex. It’s an album of extremes, often within the same song, but Amos veers between them with such ease and command that she elides any real distinction between ugly and pretty, soft and hard. The baroque stateliness of Blood Roses is ripped through the middle by the full force of Amos’ latent Diamanda Galás tendencies. A visceral howl of pain gives way to dreamy delicacy, culminating in an astonishing set of triple rounds, on Father Lucifer. Paring her arrangements back for the bulk of the album serves only to expand her range, which takes in thrash harpsichord backed by a sampled bull roaring (Professional Widow), piano tearjerkers that could be standards in a different context (Hey Jupiter, Putting the Damage On) and, briefly, the mimicking of a daytime TV theme tune on a song declaring Jesus to be a woman (Muhammad My Friend) – probably the outright funniest moment of Amos’ career.
Some of Boys for Pele’s ostensibly most forbidding aspects prove to be its most inviting. Experimental song structures simply end up giving Amos’ underrated gift for melody more room to shine: Boys for Pele is secretly one of her most hook-rich works, but the way in which they flow into each other is entirely in keeping with the album’s shifting sands building its own strange internal logic. The same is true of Amos’ lyricism: a stream of consciousness that moves with no explanation between mythological references, startlingly raw imagery, literary allusions, private in-jokes, wordplay that exists only for the pure phonetic hell of it, parsing meaning from any given song is to open a door to many worlds. Amos has been reductively labelled a “confessional” artist, but the oblique nature of her songwriting is a dismantling of the idea that piecing together a straightforward “confession” is a useful goal; rather, Amos communicates the fragmented, blurry nature of trauma in her words and unvarnished emotion in her voice.
Twenty-five years on, Amos largely remains an artist given her due by real heads only. Her position in the canon – such as it is – has not been the result of any large-scale critical re-evaluation, and unlike many of her peers from the 90s rock landscape she has never been deemed a cool touchstone by the music press: her piano perceived as too polite at a time when grunge was in vogue, her virtuoso theatricality an ill fit for a turn-of-the-century indie scene that prized lo-fi mumbling, her earnest feelings a turn-off to generations of critics who have preferred to seek refuge in jaded irony.
Instead, Amos has been a cult artist, a term that may have been once commonly used in the music press to disparage her notoriously devoted fanbase – uncoincidentally, one that skewed heavily female and/or queer – but should instead be a reflection of a rare gift to create the kind of human connection with an audience that is arguably the entire point of art. The past decade has seen elements of Amos’ aesthetic quietly return to prominence, thanks in part to self-avowed fans from Taylor Swift to Perfume Genius to St Vincent. But few comparisons survive much interrogation: Bat for Lashes and Joanna Newsom, for example, bear much the same relationship to Amos as she did to Kate Bush, the point of reference continually and lazily thrown at her by critics unable to hear beyond a shared instrument and vocal range.
Indeed, the best comparison points to Boys for Pele in recent years have been albums that sounded nothing like it, by artists working in entirely different genres. Angel Haze’s 2015 album Back to the Woods turned emotional wounds and religious trauma into a source of power in a similarly cathartic fashion, manifest in Haze’s furiously confrontational rapping and bone-juddering percussion; while electronic R&B visionary Dawn Richard’s headiest experiment yet, 2013’s Blackheart, was also a triumph of inventing its own internal logic. Both, appropriately, are also cult classics that exist on the margins rather than mainstream breakthroughs. Amos’ legacy is as an entirely sui generis artist with an unparalleled ability to strike the realest of chords in the most unpredictable of ways – and Boys for Pele is her most unreplicable work.