Amos defines her artistic voice, cloaked in metaphor
Tori Amos’ 1992 solo debut, Little Earthquakes, served as the first step in a revisionist negation of her beginnings with Y Kant Tori Read. That synth pop outfit offered occasional hints of how she might develop: Heart Attack at 23 has a sweet piano intro and features Amos’ expressive phrasing. But the band’s pop veneer was too thick and both the music and the band experience chafed. While Little Earthquakes offers more musical depth and expressiveness than Y Kant Tori Read, her second solo album, Under The Pink, is where Amos truly defines her artistic voice.
In particular, her piano steps forward, enveloped in richer, orchestral arrangements and she perfects an oblique writing style that hints at the stories behind the songs rather than telling them outright. Where Little Earthquakes’s "Me and a Gun" told a straight narrative with a powerful simplicity, the songs on Under The Pink are cloaked in metaphor, augmented by the music. On "Bells For Her", the dark, hollow sound creates a sense of doom and inevitability. The lyrics acknowledge this, “Can’t stop what’s coming/ Can’t stop what’s on its way,” but otherwise the thread of the story is hard to unravel. In interviews, Amos has said that the song refers to a break with a good friend that never healed. Rather than explain that overt message, the arrangement conveys the feelings behind the story with a brittle vocal and chiming tones that are vulnerable with regret.
This use of masking has become central to Amos’ writing style. On the one hand, her voice is deeply expressive and the songs feel like private gems of personal experience. But even as she confesses or exposes herself, she cloaks the revelation in metaphors that soften the focus on the details. It’s never clear whether this is to give the songs a broader stage or to distance herself from conflict or pain. Outsiders perceive that disconnect as a kind of shallowness. They dismiss her as a less experimental version of Kate Bush and it’s true that both women are singer/songwriters with a history of classical piano. But fans appreciate that Amos hasn’t shielded her internal perspectives as much as Bush. They find a sense of depth in the layers of metaphor. They surrender themselves to the emotional truth of the songs and accept that the lyrics may never deliver clarity.
Aside from developing her artistic voice, Under The Pink explores themes that confront gender role and religious expectations. This is another aspect that alienates some listeners. Amos takes a strong feminist position in her writing, but rather than becoming strident, she generally finds ways to surprise. So, on a song like "Baker Baker", she reverses the stereotypes. Instead of the man, she’s aloof and unable to commit and it’s costing her the relationship: “And he tells me I pushed him away/ That my heart’s been hard to find.” But even as she describes herself in that situation, her perspective is more nuanced. She’s torn and regretful about the loss even as she accepts the truth that she couldn’t have faked her way through that commitment. The track is overtly sentimental, with Amos’ tortured, emotional vocals and the orchestral accompaniment, but the song survives the schmaltz.
By contrast, "God" jolts the listener with casual blasphemy. Condescending to God, she compliments His daisies but scolds Him for His absence. The funky groove crosses Steve Miller’s "Fly Like an Eagle" with "One Thing Leads to Another" by the Fixx. Spiky shards of guitar chaos rip loose in the spaces around the choruses, like a guilty voice in Amos’ brain reacting to her heresy. This kind of feminist response to patriarchal Christianity becomes another common thread throughout her work. Unlike "Baker Baker", the risk isn’t about her feelings; it’s about making her disdain public.
Much like her first solo album, Under The Pink establishes a soft-loud dynamic shift, alternating from song to song. But even the softer tunes have their jarring moments. The first track, "Pretty Good Year", eases in gently. The delicate piano and Amos’ aching voice are wistful and the added strings increase the poignancy. Still, the piano hints at darkness every now and again by toying with the song’s key signature. Just as the tune seems to fade down to an open, twinkling piano line, angst spews out like a lanced wound: “What’s it gonna take,’til my baby’s all right?” This blindly grasping frustration is the heart of the song’s undercurrent of loss. Amos clearly chose her opening track carefully to lull the listener with pretty piano and strings only to disrupt complacency with that hot flash of tension. When the sweet sound returns, it can’t be fully trusted. This becomes Amos’ stage persona as well. Loose and flowing, attractive and talented, Amos nurtures hidden edges and darkness underneath which she allows to surface periodically for effect.
The theatricality and showiness carry the songs. Sometimes, the plot line becomes tenuous, like "Past The Mission", "The Wrong Band", or "Space Dog". But even then, lyrical phrases catch the ear and the musical mood is strong enough to gloss over any confusion. The breakout hit from the album, "Cornflake Girl", is proof that this kind of stream of conscious flow can connect. Listeners may not be sure what’s going on with cornflake and raisin girls, but they get the picture of cliques and betrayal.
Amos closes out the album with her most ambitious artistic statement, "Yes, Anastasia". She turns away from traditional pop music structure, developing the progression with rich musical ideas that reflect her time at Peabody Conservatory. Running nine and a half minutes, she has time to break the song into mini movements with solid dynamics. The story itself is stylized, loosely tied to Anastasia Romanov. Amos was apparently inspired by a vision spawned by food poisoning. Regardless of the trigger, her piano work swirls through crescendos and gentle pauses. Similarly, the emotion of the piece ebbs and flows, sometimes leaving Amos staring off in the distance, not quite sure how to move forward. Then a moment later, her voice is strong and knowing. The powerful orchestration shows Aaron Copland’s influence, but lightly applied. Ultimately, the piece is all about the expressiveness of a piano and a voice. "Yes, Anastasia" closes with Amos’ challenge to herself, “We’ll see how brave you are.”
Since Under The Pink, Amos has bravely tackled a wide range of projects, from gender-swapping cover songs (Strange Little Girls) to more recent work in orchestral settings (Night of Hunters and Gold Dust). But it’s this early step of her journey that seems most intriguing.