The singer/songwriter’s third studio album remains an idiosyncratically peculiar yet poignant opus
By the start of 1995, Tori Amos had established herself as not only one of the greatest piano-based singer/songwriters of her generation, but also as an outspoken social commentator, theological critic, and feminist icon.
Drawing from forerunners like Elton John, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel, and Laura Nyro, both 1992’s Little Earthquakes and 1994’s Under the Pink fearlessly and compellingly examined womanhood, masculinity, and many other weighty topics within typically moving, catchy, and adventurous compositions. (Even 1988’s synth-rock precursor, Y Kant Tori Read, foreshadowed those qualities.)
Thus, she had quite a lot to live up to when it came time to pen her third sequence—Boys for Pele—and thankfully, she didn’t disappoint. Released on January 22nd, 1996, Boys for Pele expands upon Amos’ already astounding knack for uniquely exploratory arrangements, esoterically confessional lyricism, mesmeric melodies, and singing that alternative between being operatically empowered and gently bittersweet. True, it doesn’t contain as many immediate standouts as its precursors (or 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel), making it the most challenging, demanding, and “artsy” of Amos’ earliest LPs; however, what it lacks in overt hookiness, it more than makes up for with its consistent beauty, mystery, and characteristic strangeness.
Recorded in Ireland and Louisiana between June and October of 1995, the album was partially inspired by the end of her romantic relationship with former co-producer Eric Rosse (as well as various other disconcerting experiences with men). In a January 1996 interview with The New York Times’ Ann Powers, Amos describe it as her “boy record,” adding, “There’s the personal, but also there are patterns and myths, like the story of Mary Magdalene, that started to make me see. Why did I always look to these men? I was always reading where I stood by what they saw. Stealing their fire. Trying to.”
VIDEO: Tori Amos “Hey Jupiter”
In that way, Boys for Pele is a crucial illustration of Amos turning personal hardships into universal female agency and necessary observations about gender dynamics decades before the #metoo movement spawned myriad conversations and reassessments. (It should go without saying that Amos’ insights are beneficial to all listeners, and that investigating and speaking about how men impact women in unhealthy ways is not the same as being anti-male.)
The title of the LP corresponds to that subject matter, as it came from Amos’ trip to Hawaii during the Under the Pink tour, where she learned about Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanos who represents a role reversal from traditional male dominance and prioritization. Likewise, its fifteen main songs (and four interludes) are symbolic of the story of Osiris, an Egyptian god who was cut into pieces by his brother, Set, and then reconstructed after his wife, Isis, put him back together. Although due to technical circumstances, too, the fact that Boys for Pele is the first of many albums Amos produced by herself is another instance of its overarching symbolism about women’s independence and authority. Plus, it was recorded in a church not only for acoustic reasons, but also as a representation of finding “wholeness” and control after growing up within a conventionally sexist and judgmental Christian environment.
Even the artwork—spearheaded by Cindy Palmano—plays into Amos’ central purpose. It depicts her sitting in a rocking chair while holding a rifle and revealing her uncovered right leg (evoking a sort of countrified femme fatale confidence); there’s also a snake coiling itself around the chair, as well as a hanging rooster, resulting in a profoundly metaphorical image that’s also a direct allusion to “Me and a Gun” from Little Earthquakes. In a February 1996 interview with San Francisco’s Live 105, Amos explained that it’s about “death and life . . . creation . . . what it’s taken me to get here with men, and I don’t want to be angry anymore.”
In terms of line-up, she reteamed with guitarist Steve Caton, bassist George Porter Jr., and strings arranger John Philip Shenale while incorporating roughly a dozen other musicians. As such, it’s a very wide-ranging record, with Amos also playing clavichord and Harpsichord alongside an array of orchestral timbres and bagpipes (courtesy of The Black Dyke Mills Band and The Sinfonia of London). It would be the last time she had such a large cast of players on an album until 2009’s Midwinter Graces.
As with Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, Boys for Pele was released by Atlantic Records in America and East West Records in Europe. Commercially, it fared even better than Amos’ initial duo, simultaneously peaking at No.2 on the Billboard 200 and UK Albums Chart and doing well across Europe. Subsequently, its second US single, “Talula,” appeared in the film Twister, while its’ third single, “Professional Widow” (as well as “Talula” and “In the Springtime of His Voodoo”), received successful dance remixes that helped attract a whole new crowd to Amos’ artistry. Expectedly, the 2016 Deluxe Edition reissue contains a bonus disc that houses some remixes and other essentials (like the initially Japanese-only extra track, “Toodles Mr. Jim”).
Critical assessments weren’t as celebratory, though, with many publications praising its music and Amos’ vocals but admonishing its more opaque lyrical and melodic qualities. Those grievances weren’t entirely unjustified since, again, Boys for Pele is at least a bit more impenetrable than either of its predecessors, requiring more time to fully appreciate. Nevertheless, Spin listed it as one of the best albums of 1996, and fortunately, the past quarter-century has allowed listeners to properly internalize Boys for Pele. Today, it’s rightly celebrated, with many fans and professional assessors ranking it as her masterpiece.
Although Boys for Pele isn’t as full of accessible gems as the LPs around it, there are still a handful of selections that jump out without much difficulty. Primarily, the first single and arguably best-known tune, “Caught a Lite Sneeze,” is right in line with Amos’ other slightly industrial ballads. Mixing wistful singing and angelic backing chants with worldly tenors and exhilarating rhythms, it’s a prime example of her ability to decorate an alluring foundation with eclectic and distinctive tapestries.
Elsewhere, starter “Beauty Queen/Horses” builds brilliantly from an airy lamentation to a chillingly arresting mantra maintained by gorgeous pianowork and one of the album’s greatest melodies. Later, “Father Lucifer” is bouncy and robust, with horns and intertwining vocals yielded an irresistible spectacle. “Marianne” is even more bombastic and tasteful, with lovely strings and dynamic shifts creating a very cinematic experience, whereas “Little Amsterdam” is like an even more bizarre sibling to Under the Pink’s “Cornflake Girl.”
There are also plenty of more atypical pieces that are hypnotic and commendable for less surface-level reasons. Particularly, “Professional Widow” is ripe with intriguing harpsichord groundwork and exuberantly bold lyrics (“Slag pit, stag shit / Honey, bring it close to my lips” and “Starfucker just like my daddy, yes”), while “Talula” is a dissonant, almost incongruous hodgepodge of textures and deviations that somehow work wonderfully. There’s also the jazzy and playful “In the Springtime of His Voodoo,” which ventures into progressive rock territory with its abrupt changes and stacked vocal rows.
Really, every segment of Boys for Pele deserves close examination, as even the samey inclusions (relatively traditional piano odes like “Twinkle,” “Muhammad My Friend,” “Hey Jupiter,” “Not the Red Baron,” and “Way Down”) carry enough personality and nuance to claim their own identities. Similarly, the record’s absence of instantaneous earworms and broad user-friendliness makes it a poor choice for someone’s first Tori Amos record, but by the same token, it’s perhaps the most rewarding of her 1990s run since it’s the most crypt and intellectual.
No matter how it compares to the rest of her early catalog, though, there’s no denying Boys for Pele’s ingeniousness at both continuing Amos’ one-of-a-kind creativity and helping break down barriers of subject matter and musicality in a larger sense.
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