Down for the Count

The fight's gone out of Tori Amos' music; what's left is too safe to matter.

Sometimes your songs don't do what you want them to. It's a principle Tori Amos paradoxically harnessed and rode to glory. Take "Honey," one of her better B-sides. As she explains on the live version that appears on the Hey Jupiter EP, it—the song—didn't want to be on 1994's Under the Pink, so she gave it some space and decided to check back two years later. It proved equally truculent when she started recording 1996's Boys for Pele, so she backed off again. Then, in 1998, she gave it one last chance: From the Choirgirl Hotel or bust. To paraphrase, "Honey" told its writer to go fuck herself. Soon after, she and it achieved a fragile truce: She'd perform it as a B-side in concert without ever committing it to an LP. In 2003, she apparently found a loophole: Footage of Amos performing "Honey" appears on the DVD that accompanies Tales of a Librarian, her greatest- hits collection.

I mention this decade-long struggle because the genius of Amos' music has always lain in its unwillingness to be tamed. Think what you may of her earth-mother kookiness—captured most recently by Ann Powers in the collaborative biography Tori Amos: Piece by Piece (Broadway, $23.95), co-written with Amos—it produced some of the most interesting pop music of the '90s. Amos, who incorporates biblical imagery into much of her music, would surely appreciate the notion that she resembles Jacob, wrestling time and again with her angel-like muse and not letting up until it blesses her with something dark, emotional, and real. Lately, though, she hasn't been doing much wrestling, and it shows. When Amos stops fighting the songs, forcing strangeness out of them, her fans—who, God knows, enjoy a good struggle, too—catch wind right away. The Beekeeper (Atlantic), her first album of new material since 2002's Scarlet's Walk, gives longtime fans very little to grapple with—except, perhaps, signs of their hero's long-feared decline into irrelevance and mediocrity.

Before throwing in the Toriphile towel, though, it pays to peruse the pages of Piece by Piece, if only to understand how Amos reached a point where struggling stopped making sense. Through italicized commentary by Powers, seemingly verbatim contributions from Amos, and ambiguous sections labeled "Conversation Between Tori and Ann," the rock writer shows off her curatorial skills (she also works as senior curator at Seattle's Experience Music Project). Different chapters are structured differently to reflect the subject matter, as exhibits in a museum might be. A brief history of Amos' public image—one of the book's most arresting passages—relies heavily on input from Karen Binns, her personal stylist, and Loren Haynes, the photographer who shot her first Spin cover, directed the music video for "Bliss" (from 1999's double album, To Venus and Back), and continues to work with her.

From the big hair and dominatrix outfits Amos donned while fronting a pop-metal band in the late '80s—a time she would later satirize in Venus' "Glory of the '80s"—to her complicated shape-shifting in the liner notes of 2001's Strange Little Girls, Powers and Amos dig into the logistics of molding an idiosyncratic young artist into a mainstream brand that signifies idiosyncrasy. (To understand the difference, check out Amos' smirking, polished, self-satisfied visage on the cover of Beekeeper, then compare it to her mud-spattered, gun-toting Southern-belle-gone-bad persona on the cover of Pele.) As she makes the transition, the wild struggles that energized Amos' first several albums—her vengeful, passive-aggressive hysterics on Pink's"The Waitress," her genderfucking stripper act (complete with orgasm!) on Choirgirl's "She's Your Cocaine"—give way to a new aesthetic: sanitized, soft-focus soft pop. Which brings us to Beekeeper, a self-produced album that sounds it. Hermetic and nearly bloodless, it's an echo chamber where shallow exercises in style evoke prior glories.

Early in the album, "The Power of Orange Knickers" signals what's to come. A duet with Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice, the song is lyrically self-derivative. Amos' reference to "those girls that smile kindly/Then rip your life to pieces" blatantly echoes "Precious Things" (from her debut, Little Earthquakes), where she skewered similar hypocrisy: "Little fascist panties/Tucked inside the heart of every nice girl." It'd be fine if the music did something new, but it doesn't. This is mild-mannered pop on autopilot, with Matt Chamberlain's drums and Jon Evans' bass cowering—as Rice does, too—under Amos and the soporific lilting of her Bösendorfer piano.

On "General Joy," whose pacing and instrumentation are suspiciously similar, she tells the song's title character: "General Joy/It seems you need a soldier girl." Didn't we go through this already? In Pink's "God," the singer puckishly asked that title character: "Do you need a woman to care for you?" A question Amos once aimed at the heavens, à la Jacob, she now merely directs to a generic military man—a straw man, really, concocted to represent all that's bad about war, men, and oppression ("now 'they' have Liberty gagged"). And while Latin riffs like "Sweet the Sting" and "Hoochie Woman" are plenty catchy, they're frustrating, too, because they have no emotional urgency—a fancy way of saying they didn't really need to be written. Amos warned us this would happen—or perhaps she was warning herself. On "She's Your Cocaine," she mockingly sang: "And is it true/That devils end up like you/Something safe for the picture frame?" And, she could add now, getting safer by the album.

Tori Amos plays Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., 206-215-4747, at 8 p.m. Fri., April 22. $45 adv.

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