PopOff Retro Review: Tori Amos’ “Little Earthquakes” Turns 30

PopOff Retro Review: Tori Amos’ “Little Earthquakes” Turns 30

Every finger in the room is pointing at me
I wanna spit in their faces, then I get afraid of what that could bring

Those two lines from the song, “Crucify” open the album Little Earthquakes by Tori Amos, which turned 30 at the end of February. And when I say “open” I mean it is the first thing you hear along with her piano and some drums. Talk about setting a tone and making an announcement. This certainly has to be one of the boldest statements of the 90s. Up there with “Here we are now, entertain us” which came out the previous year. Both signaling and end of the glossy sheen of 80s excess and pop optimism. And certainly it packs a different kind of punch than, “I’m want you to know… I’m happy for you” that opens another seminal 90s record that would drop 3 years later. And Little Earthquakes came out a year before the crown jewel of 90s female/feminist epopees Exile in Guyville by Liz Phair.

Previously, Amos had been in the short lived new wave outfit Y Kant Tori Read doing synth-pop in 1988. Pandering to the big hair decade didn’t work out and so she dropped the synth and much of the pop. And after much fighting with executives and labels who claimed a girl and a piano wouldn’t sell, she returned in 1992 with this debut. The hair not as big but no less messy or red and the music was a storm- sorry- an “earthquake” of confrontational and direct songs about being female, being raped, and being a survivor. It is a messy record with clothes strewn about the bedroom and dirty dishes in the sink. The music of, or for, somebody who just can’t quite get it together. Where one walks on the edge of many possibilities. Many of those possibilities not good ends. This is music that is working through the challenge of the human condition.

The comparisons to Kate Bush abound to this day but where Kate is mercurial and mystical, feeling sometimes like a fairy in the woods this version of Tori has an underlying brooding anger more in line with Patti Smith. And the music on Little Earthquakes feels like the work of not a magic fairy but a scorned witch or maybe even some inner self-destructive goblin. And musically, piano aside, the sound is closer to the tone of early Siouxsie and the Banshees. The phrasing also pulls a bit from the Joni Mitchell playbook, arguably the female sing-songwriter who laid the template for all others. But the mark of great artist is when you can taste the influences but can’t pinpoint exactly where from or which one’s they are for sure. And here you can name drop this or that but in the end it is a Tori Amos record from first to last note and lyric.

I missed the Tori Amos ship when she set sail in the 90s. I was still heavily on the pop dance train. And this kind of sound didn’t interest me then. But I have been going back now and getting my education on people like Tori Amos, and Bjork, Liz Phair, Garbage, and others who defined my high school years for many of peers. I am surprised at how much this album makes me move my body. Back in my teens I was so addicted to four on the floor that I didn’t really know any other way to dance. Certainly, swaying and twirling to, “Silent All These Years” was not in the vocabulary back then. But the album actually has a lot of bounce on songs like “Happy Phantom” and the aforementioned “Crucify”. More so, than my prejudice led me to believe.

“Precious Things”, is the kind of jagged and sharp song that makes you want to throw dishes against the wall and set things on fire. Or rather the song breaks dishes and set things on fire for us. And after four minutes delivers a cold ending of exhaustion. It is becoming one of my favorite tracks on the album. It is just so ferocious with its, “had enough of this shit energy” that I need right now.

Also interesting is that many of songs here waste no time getting to the story. There is no musical intro the lyrics lead each song walking, maybe not hand in hand, but alongside piano. They are partners on this record for sure, maybe even twins.

My poetry teacher once told our class, “People would rather eat a cheese sandwich than read your poem”. So when you get to a song like Leather with the opening lines,

Look I’m standing naked before you
Don’t you want more than my sex
I can scream as loud as your last one
But I can’t claim innocence

and the piano skipping along like raindrops and cello pulsing like distant thunder, you may be eating a cheese sandwich but you are taking slow bites as you can’t look away from the car wreck. I can’t think of any other albums that sounded like this before 1992… the song structure is not direct on many of the songs, emphasizing the “little earthquakes” of the album’s title. The production is clean but not polished like say the work of Sarah McLachan another 90s females leading the alternative rock world.

The album also has a song titled Mother that has had many interpretations but much like other songs titled Mother from folks as diverse as The Doors and The Police it is not a happy song. And comes off like a modern dance soundtrack you might see at a college showcase.

But on the whole the album is just solid piano-based rock and the kind that acts as if the 1980s never happened throwing back to the more confessional 70s where you feel touches of classic Elton John and even some Bowie swagger in the grander parts. And there is even a couple twisted parallel universe takes on the lush Jeff Lynne/ELO production.

But all of that comes to a halt with second to last song, Me And A Gun. Here all rock pretense is dropped and we are delivered an acappela account of rape. Without any musical background we are forced to face almost three minutes and fifty seconds of confusion and terror. When I first heard it I naively thought at some point, some piano at least, will come in to comfort. But I was a fool. This is one of the best cuts on the album. It might be the best cut just from an artistic level and certainly if we browse Tori Amos fan boards it ranks high for many out of her whole catalog.

The title track is the last song on the album and the exclamation point we need. It is the song with the most bombast. The refrain that occupies much of the songs later half,

Give me life
Give me pain
Give me myself again

can be taken as a request or more likely a reclamation of the emotions that have come before on the album. But with the final line of the album, “Doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces” it is clear this song and the record as a whole is about how the daily “little earthquakes” can slowly erode us down. Before we know it our entire shoreline is underwater. At best we are struggling to tread water and get back to shore now further away to reclaim the self again. At worst we are drowning.

But for me the best lyrics on the record come on the song, “Winter” which lands midway in the record presented as kind of crossroads of choices.

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

To be crass, “Shit or get off the pot” comes to mind here. It could be coming from a father. It could be coming from god. I take as coming from one’s own self. But any angle you take it clearly is laying the stakes down. If you don’t make your move the chances will pass you by. It’s a plea to action. And with all the years I have behind me as a survivor of trauma and living in the present world of cultural trauma, I read this now with as a kind of request for kindness to the self that struggles in the human condition. When are you going to give yourself and break and make up your mind to love yourself because things will change so fast (for better and worse) and at the end of the day you are all you’ve got.

Having now heard the album in its entirety a few times and read many of the lyrics it seems so obvious why many women and maybe even many more queers (especially gay men) have adopted her as their musical poet spirit mother. Unlike Madonna or Cher or more camp queer/feminist icons, with their anthems for the disco. Amos brought her naked honesty that was not present in the mainstream music world and offered a different dose of reality, especially in 1992 where the biggest selling album that year was Some Gave All by Billy Ray Cyrus. And though Amos was one of the first to utilize the internet to grow her fandom and connect to it this album came before the age of modern internet use so passing music and finding you Tori tribe wasn’t easy. You had live shows and maybe a fan club but that was it. People still listened to full albums in bedrooms or cars and often in secret when it was something this personal. You also read liner notes to make sure what you heard was actually what you heard. Yes, she really is singing about being raped. I don’t know if Tori would’ve been able to have the legacy she has if she had come out even say ten years ago. People just don’t give music the kind of attention they used to.

With the musicscape and people in general being so scattered these days thanks to streaming, one can get whatever they want at any time. You can jump ship at the first sound you don’t care for and go onto the next artist or album. There is no time for letting something “grow on you”. It seems only stans (and maybe critics) take on full albums at full volume these days. Little Earthquakes is not really a casual album. It requires attention to the details.

And if running for the lifeboat is how you approach this album because you don’t have the attention span or you feel the ship sinking- Maybe, you want to ask yourself why? Sure, we all have our musical preferences when it comes to the way things sound but are you running because the voice or production does not please you or because you want to escape the truth that is playing while it all goes under?

While the title track that alludes to the slow erosion from the dailies we deal with and seems to point towards how we’re all on a sinking ship. I arguethis album is not a sinking ship. It is the lifeboat itself (and fans will attest to this). In reference to the song Silent All The Years there is powerful story Amos has told about her fans,

“When I played Israel, I was in an airport bathroom when a Middle Eastern woman came up to me. She said, ‘Don’t think we’re not listening. We pass your music behind closed doors to each other and it’s something secret that we know, so don’t stop.’”

And it is stories like these that must make musicians like Tori Amos willing to keep taking the journey and help others on similar paths. And so I say with this album, you can either stay for the whole journey or abandon ship and try swimming ashore if you think that will be a faster route to solid ground. I stayed. And I hope you do too.

TASTY TRACKS:

Precious Things

Me And A Gun

Winter

Tear In Your Hand

Crucify

Little Earthquakes

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