(#495: 12 February 1994, 1 week)
Track listing: Pretty Good Year/God/Bells For Her/Past The Mission/Baker Baker/The Wrong Band/The Waitress/Cornflake Girl/Icicle/Cloud On My Tongue/Space Dog/Yes, Anastasia
Strip off the extraneous factors of skin – albeit metaphorically – and discover what lies under the pink. People fondly imagine that Tori Amos moved sideways from the confessionals of Little Earthquakes to gnomic allegory on its successor. I’m not sure she had put much distance between herself and Y Kant Tori Read; the sexual slapstick of “The Big Picture” got magnified to “Me And A Gun,” and her continued reaction to that violation is evident throughout “Baker Baker” (“Make me whole again…/Maybe we could change his mind”), “Past The Mission” (featuring harmony vocals from Trent Reznor – and if I had the time and someone had the money, I’d make a point-by-point comparison between Under The Pink and The Downward Spiral; think of “Big Man With A Gun” and “I Do Not Want This” in particular, and of course one can imagine Tori singing “Hurt.” “Closer” might serve as an acrid response to “Icicle,” the protagonist of which latter pleases herself while her Methodist minister father sermonises downstairs) and “Yes, Anastasia” – the latter appears to be sung from the perspective of Romanov’s assassin, but may also be the warning spoken by her reincarnation to those who would choose to violate her (“We’ll see how fast you’ll be running/We’ll see how brave you are”).
Tori Amos’ songs essentially have one of two subjects (occasionally both); women and God. “God,” the song, got her into trouble, for instance (“Do You need a woman to look after You?/God, sometimes You just don’t come through” – although it is clear that she is referring to the traditional, patriarchal, Biblical interpretation of God rather than the Creator, as such; the God-hood isn’t always detectable), although Steve Caton’s deliberately disruptive noise guitar is more unsettling than the lyric.
Overwhelmingly, however, Amos’ concerns are with the “girls” who punctuate this album like canisters of oxygen, and it is that constituency about whom she principally writes and whom she mainly addresses. The big hits, “Cornflake Girl” (which addresses female genital mutilation as well as the artist’s own television commercial past – the presence in the background of Merry Clayton confirms that the song is a very subtle appendix to “Gimme Shelter”) and “Pretty Good Year” (with thunderous quiet/loud alternations between piano/voice and string section which place Amos not that far from Cobain, however mirthfully the latter may have chuckled over the former’s reading of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – “Yes, Anastasia,” which musically owes far more to Ravel than Debussy, explores this schism at greater, if not necessarily deeper, length), perhaps present a slightly misleading picture of their parent album.
kneejerk critical comparison is with Kate Bush, but Under The Pink is
really nothing like The Red Shoes, and Amos is not an especial Bush disciple.
If anything – and this is a trait which she shares with Reznor – I detect a
very strong Laura Nyro influence; as with Nyro, Amos treats songs as unfolding
stories, ready to change gear or tempo almost randomly, or as the narrative
indicates. She appears to want to disappear patiently into her music, for the
boundary between story and storyteller to become indivisible. It is also important to remember that Amos is a classically-trained musician, hence writes as a classical composer would - she hears all this rock growing up but reshapes it until the music becomes acceptable to her.
Not all of the album works, and I suspect that was Amos’ intent – the Tom Lehrer pastiche of “The Wrong Band” (which nevertheless will lead us towards Rufus Wainwright), the choppy semi-industrial “The Waitress” – but “Space Dog” is a nice subversion of early nineties AoR tropes. The album works best in its quietest moments; “Icicle” and “Cloud On My Tongue” (the latter is about Amos’ experiences in the Borneo jungle!) are both masterclasses in poisonous contemplation worthy of seventies Michael Mantler (Amos would have been so good on Silence). “Bells For Her,” a piningly resigned lament for a friendship slowly drifting away from palpability, is perhaps the record’s deepest moment, set to a prepared upright piano made to sound like a kalimba, or possibly ancient grandfather clock chimes – as with Global Communication’s “14:31” and Tindersticks’ “Cherry Blossoms,” it could tentatively tick on forever, but, as happens on Julien Baker’s “Hardline,” the mourning dwindles, or magnifies, to a murmur, until we are left with abstract vowels and sentiments, the musician whispering to herself, becoming her self, and there is nothing left but everything – “can’t stop what’s coming, can’t stop what’s on its way.”