By Bec Wolfers
‘I Crucify Myself’ – Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes (1992)
Trigger warning: this article contains references to sexual assault towards the end.
3. Silent All These Years
4. Precious Things
6. Happy Phantom
10. Tear In Your Hand
11. Me and a Gun
12. Little Earthquakes
And now we come to the album I got the name of this blog from – Tori Amos’ 1992 debut LP, Little Earthquakes. Little Earthquakes is a sprawling jungle of piano, echoing beats and strong vocals. I loved to get lost in its depths during my late teens.
The History of Little Earthquakes
Classically trained pianist Tori Amos first released music under the synth-poppy project ‘Y Kant Tori Read’, however Little Earthquakes is the first of her many solo albums. With this record, Tori firmly marked herself on the map as one of the world’s premier musicians. Critical acclaim was lavished upon Tori, and comparisons to Joni Mitchell abounded.
Showcasing Tori’s versatile, distinctive voice, and impressive piano skills, Little Earthquakes is a cohesive, yet diverse collection of songs. This is an album of poetry, confessions and courage. Its style is alternative pop, with some baroque-pop characteristics – this ain’t no Britney Spears record; it’s very intelligent, adult stuff. It’s quite a masterpiece, and sets up what to expect from Tori in her long (still going), fruitful career: left-of-centre song arrangements, a fearlessness in terms of lyrical content, and wild experimentation with different instruments. Tori has always reminded me a lot of Nick Cave as an artist; both musicians probe a wide landscape of lyrical topics, consistently reinvent themselves musically, and have quietly proven themselves over a long career of stellar work.
Crucify is my favourite track on this album. It’s just fantastic, musically as well as lyrically. Tori’s voice comes in straight away, with her gift for creative vocal cadence and rhythm:
Every finger in the room is pointing at me,
I wanna spit in their faces, but I get afraid of what that could mean..
I got a bowling ball in my stomach, I got a desert in my mouth,
Figures that my courage would choose to sell out now…
/I’ve been looking for a saviour in these dirty streets,
Looking for a saviour beneath these dirty sheets,
I’ve been raising up my hands, drive another nail in,
Just what God needs, one more victim…
/Why do we crucify ourselves every day?
I crucify myself, and nothing I do is good enough for you,
I crucify myself every day, I crucify myself,
And my heart is sick of being in chains…
The vocal melody in this song is exceptional, but still quirky (as is to be expected of Tori, the Queen of quirky). Tumbling torrents of grand, expressive piano perfectly build momentum. The drums have this awesome, almost 80s, canned quality that reminds me of bands like The Cure – and 1992 wasn’t too far away from the 80s, so maybe this is a thing.
With her father a preacher, it’s no secret Tori grew up religious, yet felt confined by this. Crucify explores that restrictive side of religion, and also is a great comment in general about how us human beings tend to metaphorically ‘string ourselves up’ for just about everything we do ‘wrong’.
The next tracks, Girl and Silent All These Years, are piano and drum-soaked songs, showcasing Tori’s pretty vibrato, and odd, poetic lyrics. Girl plays with vocal chorus, string arrangements, and in the middle eight, some amazing 4-part vocal harmony layering. Silent All These Years is even more delicate musically, but strong in its lyrical themes:
I said sometimes,
I hear my voice,
And it’s been here…
Silent All These Years…
Precious Things is another of my favourites on this album. A really haunting song, it gets experimental with breathy samples. The song’s dark, bassy piano chords contrast with tinkling high keys riffs. I think this is the first time you hear guitar on a Tori song, too, and its distorted electric stabs are effective in building atmosphere. With Tori’s fantastic gift for storytelling, the lyrics of this song look back unflinchingly at those shameful, regrettable moments of adolescent relationships and friendships. Precious Things tells of growing up, gnawing self-consciousness, and the secret crushes and jealousies that arise at this period of life.
He said, you’re really an ugly girl,
But I like the way you play…and I died…
But I thanked him…can you believe that?
Sick, sick…holding on to his picture,
Dressing up every day…
I wanna smash the faces of those beautiful boys…
Those Christian boys…
So, you can make me come?
That doesn’t make you Jesus…
/These precious things, let them bleed, let them wash away…
These precious things, let them break their hold on me…
/I remember, in my peach party dress,
No one dared, no one cared to tell me…
Where those pretty girls are, those demi-Gods,
With their nine inch nails and little fascist panties
Tucked inside the heart of every nice girl…
I actually first heard Tori’s heart-shattering post-chorus “aaaaaaah” used as a sample, in a song called Out Of Body Experience (Rabbit in the Moon mix) by DJ Sasha and John Digweed. (This was back in my ravey teenage days. The album it’s from, Northern Exposure, is great). You can hear the Precious Things samples start to filter in at around 2 minutes, and the vocal ‘aaaaaah’ moment happens at 3:32 – amazing!
I remember, hearing Precious Things for the first time, happily freaking out a little when I heard that vocal moment in its original context.
I adore the lyrics in this song. They really nail down a particular feeling I’m familiar with – the regret of working so hard to please a crush when you’re young, and looking back as an adult, thinking, “Why did I compromise myself so much to please that jerk?”…Tori puts it a lot more eloquently than that, though!
Winter, track #5, has a beautifully memorable piano riff. Its vocal melody is almost as haunting as Precious Things’, but in a sadder way. This song is another great example of probing past experiences for writing material.
I put my hand in my father’s glove, I run off,
Where the drifts get deeper,
Sleeping beauty trips me with a frown, I hear a voice…
“Your must learn to stand up for yourself,
Cause I can’t always be around”
/When you gonna make up your mind?
When you gonna love you as much as I do?
When you gonna make up your mind?
Cause things are gonna change so fast,
All the white horses are still in bed,
I tell you that I’ll always want you near,
You say that things change, my dear…
Happy Phantom is a jauntier track, with a delightfully catchy chorus:
Woohoo, the time is getting closer,
Woohoo, the time to be a ghost,
Woohoo, every day we’re getting closer
The sun is geting dim,
Will we pay for who we’ve been?
The cheerful piano on this track borders on ‘piany’ at times (think the Cheers theme song), and there’s a little dulcimer solo in the middle, which is a nice surprise.
Honestly, sometimes I don’t even try to interpret Tori’s lyrics, and I won’t for this song. She is a world unto herself. I remember getting ready to take my mother with me to see Tori on her American Doll Posse tour. I gave my mum a bunch of songs to listen to, and lyrics to read, as my mother likes to know what songs are ‘about’, to enjoy them. She couldn’t get into Tori at all, and just found her lyrics annoyingly obtuse. But I think this is part of the beauty of Tori; her lyrics are often quite mysterious and up for interpretation. She really uses words as poetic devices in her songs. They’re very, very rarely to be taken literally. I find the best way to digest Tori’s lyrics is to let them wash over you, enjoy her creative turns of phrase, and interpret them how you see fit.
China is a beautiful ballad about distance between lovers – I love the way Tori uses locations as metaphors for emotional distance in this one.
China, all the way to New York,
I can feel the distance getting close…
You’re right next to me,
But I need an airplane,
I can feel the distance as you breathe…
/Sometimes, I think you want me to touch you…
How can I, when you build the great wall around you?
In your eyes, I saw the future,
Together, you just look away in the distance…
Leather is a great pop song – it reminds me of a Beatles track in its simplicity, vocal melody, stabby piano and string chords. Tori also plays with accents and vocal role play here – the way she sings ‘he had a nice big fat cigar’ in an affected gangster voice is so amusing.
Look, I’m standing naked before you
Don’t you want more then my sex
I can scream as loud as your last one
But I can’t claim innocence
Mother is a song that has been dissected by a million people to mean a million different things. I see it as a reflection on Tori’s relationship with her mother (…how insightful of me!). On re-listen for this blog, it definitely brought some tears to my eyes – having just moved out from living with my mum, who I have a very close relationship with. It’s an introspective piano ballad with some really engaging imagery:
The phone has been disconnected,
Dripping with blood…
And with time,
And with your advice,
Poison me against the moon…
/Mother, the car is here,
Somebody leave the light on,
Black Chariot for the redhead,
Dancing, dancing girl…and when I dance for him,
Somebody leave the light on just in case,
I like the dancing,
I can remember where I come from…
Tear in Your Hand is this great, almost 80s new-wave sounding track. I feel like it paves the way for the album’s final track, Little Earthquakes, in that it sounds ‘fuller’ than any previous track.
Me and a Gun is the one of the most shattering songs I’ve ever heard. Incredibly sad, it’s a completely acapella song that is…difficult for me to listen to. It’s one of my favourites, but I’ve probably played it the least, in the many times I’ve spinned this album. A great piece of art, it genuinely disturbs me inside, because it’s nothing but raw truth and pain. Especially when you hear the backstory of it…
Before Little Earthquakes, Tori, after playing a small gig, kindly obliged a patron from the show with a lift home. But in the parking lot, the scum piece of shit (‘scuse my language) raped her at knifepoint. As Tori says,
“I’ll never talk about it at this level again, but let me ask you. Why have I survived that kind of night, when other women didn’t? How am I alive to tell you this tale, when he was ready to slice me up? In the song, I say it was ‘Me and a Gun’, but it wasn’t a gun. It was a knife he had. And the idea was to take me to his friend’s and cut me up, and he kept telling me that, for hours. And if he hadn’t needed more drugs, I would have been just one more news report, where you see the parents grieving for their daughter. And I was singing hymns, as I say in the song, because he told me to. I sang to stay alive. Yet I survived that torture, which left me urinating all over myself and left me paralysed for years. That’s what that night was all about, mutilation rather than violation through sex. I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night, and that now I’m trying to put the pieces back together again. Through love, not hatred. And through my music. My strength has been to open again, to life, and my victory is the fact that, despite it all, I kept alive my vulnerability.”
I can relate to this so much, and it makes me so angry and sad to know that a beautiful person and artist like Tori had to go through something like this. The word ‘brave’ also comes to mind. Sexual assault is one of the most horrific things that can happen to a person, and it’s almost as difficult to talk about if you survive it. Tori opened a dialogue by sharing her experiences in this song. She’s now a spokesperson for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network – you can donate and keep up with their causes here. They do wonderful work to help victims).
Me and a gun, and a man on my back,
And I sang ‘holy holy’, as he buttoned down his pants,
But I haven’t seen Barbados, so I must get out of this…
/Yes, I wore a slinky red thing,
Does that mean I should spread?
For you, your friends, your father, Mr. Ed?
/Tell me what’s right,
Is it my right to be on my stomach?
On Fred’s Seville?
/And do you know Carolina,
Where the biscuits are soft and sweet?
These things go through your head,
When there’s a man on your back,
And you’re pushed flat on your stomach,
It’s not a classic Cadillac.
Gah. I’m getting angry and worked up just thinking about all this. Let’s move on…
The last track, Little Earthquakes is, probably one of the most fully-formed sounding tracks on the whole album. I feel it paints a picture of what Tori’s next album, Under The Pink, would wind up sounding like. The space in the song is more filled out than anything else on the album, with deep, heavy drums and bass carrying the tune along. This song has many different sections, and I love when it descends first into delightful chaos, then group chanting, then harmonies…then winds back down to just Tori and piano again, at the end.
And I hate, and I hate
The way we fight,
The way I’m left here silent…
/Oh, these little earthquakes,
Here we go again…
These little earthquakes,
Doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces…
This album really lives up to the name ‘Little Earthquakes’ – it’s not quite about earth-shattering topics (except for on Me and a Gun – that’s a global problem). But Little Earthquakes harnesses the moments of one’s life that shock you, change you and shake you to your core. It’s a collection of Tori’s experiences, spotlighting her gift for introspection. The way she has reflected on her life thusfar and turned it into art is truly inspiring. On Little Earthquakes, Tori made her mark not only as a musician, but as a great wordsmith and poet of our age.
Tori is still making music, and her last record came out only last year. She is, quite simply, a tour de force, and an artist who gives and gives and gives. Tori has had about a bajillion albums since Little Earthquakes, so I won’t talk too in-depth about them, but here’s a list:
Under The Pink (1994)
Boys For Pele (1996)
From the Choirgirl Hotel (1998)
To Venus and Back (1999)
Strange Little Girls (2001)
Scarlet’s Walk (2002)
The Beekeeper (2005)
American Doll Posse (2007)
Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009)
Midwinter Graces (2009)
Night of Hunters (2011)
Gold Dust (2012)
…Plus a bunch of live and bootleg albums. Phew. Prolific, much?
Briefly, Under The Pink sparked the incredibly popular single Cornflake Girl (a masterpiece of a song). I also really dig the tracks God and Yes, Anastasia.
Boys for Pele gave me Caught a Lite Sneeze and Blood Roses, two songs still on high rotation in my music collection.
From The Choirgirl Hotel showcased more of a ‘full band’ sound, and was pretty heavy on the production. This is a really rad album – the dancey-chaos of Raspberry Swirl is a strange style for Tori, but it works.
Strange Little Girls deserves a special mention – a concept album, it features covers of songs written and originally performed by men, reinterpreted by Tori from a female point of view. Tori created female personae to put her own twist on songs like Happiness Is a Warm Gun by The Beatles, ’97 Bonnie and Clyde by Eminem, Raining Blood by Slayer, and Strange Little Girl by The Stranglers.
Strange Little Girl is such a great cover song – I think it’s better than the original. The video is really evocative, and Tori looks absolutely gorgeous in it.
The Beekeeper is known as one of Tori’s weirdest albums (given how weird Tori is already, you can imagine how odd that is). I personally love this album, though!
American Doll Posse is another concept album, for which Tori created five different ‘women’ – Santa, Clyde, Isabel, Tori and Pip. (Read more about it all here) Different songs on the album are sung by different characters. I saw Tori on tour with this album, and it was a crazycool experience. Tori came out dressed as different women for each song. A highlight of the show was watching Tori straddle a piano stool as she played two pianos at once.
With her incredibly creative spirit, Tori has not only amassed an impressive collection of albums, but created an actual body of mythos in her work. I look forward to seeing more from her as the years go by.
This is an artist who will never stop…and why would we want her to?