After our recent discussion of Hole’s Live Through This album, my friend Katy and I continued our 1990s nostalgia trek with this conversation about Tori Amos’s heart-rending 1992 album Little Earthquakes. We also discuss religion, Sylvia Plath, and how Katy got kicked out of Brownies. Enjoy.
KGB: Here’s my Tori story. I first encountered her when Boys for Pele came out in 1996. 13-year-old me was extremely unhappy and angry; I had money for 2 CDs; I’d read a review of Boys for Pele that week which made it sound terrifying: it was exactly what I needed. Boys for Pele has been one of my go-to records for times of rage and angst ever since. Saying this, From the Choirgirl Hotel is technically my preferred album. But Boys for Pele is more significant in my own personal development as the kind of person who passively aggressively punishes people with my music choices.
I’ll say it right away though—Little Earthquakes is so beautiful I can’t quite believe it exists. How had I never listened to it before? You have changed my whole life by nudging me towards it.
DN: I’m glad to hear that, because I was afraid we were going to have to argue about it. She’s an incredible, generation-level talent, but I don’t think she’s ever equaled what she breathed into the world with Little Earthquakes.
My Tori story starts how many of my musical love stories begin: with my friend Honey. Honey introduced me to so many of the foundational bands and artists of my life that it is safe to say I would not be the same person without her influence, even aside from our actual personal friendship. We would send each other mix tapes when I was in high school, and she included three songs on one of them from Little Earthquakes – China, Silent All These Years, and Winter. And that was that.
Despite my awareness of her brilliant talent, I’ve always been reluctant to call myself a Tori fan, just because nothing she did after that first album a quarter century ago has ever quite rivaled it.
KGB: It is unbelievable to me that Little Earthquakes is over 25 years old. It doesn’t seem dated at all. There’s something really timeless about it. Silent All These Years is a song that really stands out to me; it’s incredibly beautiful. Having come to her for the disturbing, often discordant rage of Boys for Pele, it’s the more delicate tracks that have really stayed with me, which is why I loved Little Earthquakes from the first listen. It makes me stand by my point from our Hole discussion about Tori rivaling Courtney for rare emotional honesty in her music. Me and a Gun, obviously, is a prime example.
DN: Oh, totally. And that’s a great point. I concede the point on this one: she’s writes as gutturally honestly as Courtney.
And with more poetic talent.
Should we go through one of the albums?
Also, you’re right about the timelessness. This could have come out last year. Stuff from the early 90s can date really badly, but this feels outside of time.
KGB: Let’s get deep into Little Earthquakes.
I’m listening to Crucify now.
DN: What a song.
DN: I take notes when I listen to albums for our discussions, and usually these are quasi-intelligent in some way. Beside the first three tracks on this one I just wrote “Damn.”
KGB: I was reading up on this album today and saw that this song relates to her religious upbringing and kind of disavowing that. Does that particularly resonate with you? It made me think about what you’ve said previously about your own childhood.
I hope that’s not unpleasantly personal.
DN: I think we’re past unpleasantly personal on most things, right?
And absolutely. I am such a sucker for people taking and twisting religious imagery in writing. This song hits that perfectly.
I particularly love these lines:
“Just what God needs, one more victim.”
“Got enough guilt to start my own religion.”
KGB: That second one is so sardonic. Sometimes metaphor can be really clunky in lyrics, but she’s flawless.
DN: She really is.
Did you have any sort of religion in your childhood?
DN: So yes.
KGB: Supporting Ipswich has often felt like crucifying myself.
But no religion, no. I went to a church primary school (most of what you’d call elementary schools here are linked to church, for some reason) so I know a lot of terrible hymns, but I proclaimed myself an atheist at the age of 7 while reading the dictionary. It means I am terrible at explaining biblical allusions in books that I teach at school.
DN: I remember being surprised as a teenager to find out England is so much less Christ-haunted than we are. Such a fundamentally different soil you grew out of. Do you find a lot of our literature hard to feel, because of the role religion plays in our rural spaces?
KGB: I think I get most of it, just from reading so much, but the strength of feeling surprises me. For example, when watching season 4 of Nashville (don’t judge), I was flabbergasted by the reaction against a gay character by Christian media. I really wanted to believe it was hugely exaggerated but I don’t know if that’s wishful thinking.
DN: Oh god, I wish it was exaggerated.
KGB: People with a strong faith and a willingness to be open about it are rare here, as far as I can see. It’s definitely a surprisingly massive difference between our cultures.
I am listening to Girl now and I want to talk about the Sylvia Plath connection, please. Because I always want to talk about Sylvia Plath.
DN: Yes, let’s do that.
KGB: When I listened to Girl, I wondered if there was a link to Plath and then found an interview Tori did about the album which confirmed it. Those first few lines so strongly allude to Plath’s first suicide attempt, hiding in the crawlspace, and the whole idea of trying to become her own person is very reminiscent of The Bell Jar. The lyrics for the whole album wouldn’t look out of place in Ariel.
DN: That Ariel link is a good point. I think you’re right.
Also, what a hauntingly gorgeous song.
I think that’s one of the biggest thing that sets this album apart for me. She’s one of the best lyricists in music, and distinctly literary and dense in her poeticism, but this album is where she marries those lyrics to melodies best.
KGB: Definitely; marrying serious subject matter to such delicate melodies is an art form in itself.
Haunting is the perfect word to describe it.
KGB: The momentum that builds in this song is enthralling too. It goes through such clear movements; it’s impeccably structured.
DN: Yes. I don’t have something smart to add there. Yes.
Her piano on this album is allowed its own space in a way it sometimes isn’t in the layering of the future albums. Sometimes it’s the only instrument in the mix, as in the beginning of the next track, Silent All These Years, which is just a breathtaking song.
This is such an…American…song. Rural heartbreak and how it ties in with the religious hypocrisy that promotes and protects mediocre and volatile masculinity.
Some of the best lyrics she’s ever written, too.
KGB: And the Little Mermaid parallel, obviously.
Don’t forget that.
DN: Oh, good call. I don’t think I’d thought of that.
I mean, there’s the mermaid line, sure, but I don’t think I’d thought about the silence parallel.
KGB: I read that she read the story or watched the film with her niece and was really captivated by the idea of giving up your voice. Also, in the proper version of the story, the mermaid has to cut out her tongue and then walking on her legs feels like swords.
It is weird that Disney skipped that bit.
DN: I can’t imagine why.
KGB: But I think that darker version of the fairy tale, with its physical anguish, makes sense of that song. There’s so often palpable pain at the root of Tori’s songs.
DN: For sure.
“So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts What’s so amazing about really deep thoughts? Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon. How’s that thought for you?”
What a series of lines.
KGB: They look so simple written down, but when she sings them there’s so much more going on.
DN: I love the point in the song, after the full orchestration is going and her voice is strong and full and high, and it all just drops off back to piano and her voice quiets and she begins the “I love the way we communicate” line. A great moment, musically.
She uses her voice as an instrument really effectively. Tremendous emotional versatility depending on what the words need.
KGB: Very hard to sing along to.
DN: Ha. Yes.
KGB: The combination of that voice and the piano is so deceptive though. They give the impression you’re listening to something really pretty, but the lyrics create a wholly different sense. I’m listening to Winter now and it’s so sweeping but with a palpable edge.
I am kind of annoyed that you didn’t make me listen to this album a year and a half ago actually.
DN: Yes. And like Elliott Smith, she can scream with a whisper.
KGB: I was watching a few of her videos on Youtube today it seems like a lot of people are fans of both.
DN: I can imagine so.
KGB: I rather like it when she growls. It’s so incongruous with her angelic voice. It’s a great sound.
Precious. What an angry, wonderful song.
The piano is aggressive.
“I wanna smash the faces Of those beautiful boys
Those Christian boys
So, you can make me cum
That doesn’t make you Jesus”
I mean, god damn. Such a middle finger to Nice Guy syndrome.
Wait. Y’all don’t do middle fingers. You do some kind of reverse peace sign, right?
KGB: We do middle fingers AND a reverse peace sign. Not at the same time, that would look like some kind of Brownie salute.
I got kicked out of Brownies, incidentally.
DN: Really? What did you do?
KGB: Oh I don’t know. Something about a problem with authority, if you can believe that.
DN: I refuse to believe that.
KGB: Thank you.
DN: But anyway, THOSE LINES.
KGB: They are not quite so poetic.
She really doesn’t like religion, does she?
DN: One gathers not.
What’s funny is she was a bit too off-the-beaten-path for Christians to ever get upset about her. They protested and ranted about others, but I remember nothing about Tori Amos, because they probably hadn’t heard of her.
DN: They were immune to beauty, in my experience, but maybe.
So you mentioned Winter.
Thematically, this might be the perfect center for the album’s tone and sound. Snow can be so ethereal, haunting, and sad even while it’s beautiful. It feels like the spiritual heart of the album.
This song reminds me of Cynthia Cruz’s poems, especially in How the End Begins.
KGB: I adore the softness of the questions, building into that orchestral sweep when she sings about change. It’s astounding.
DN: For sure. Every note on this album is intentional and the intensity perfectly modulated.
KGB: *Googles Cynthia Cruz*
DN: The bridge about dreams on the shelf and being proud of me is heartbreaking.
KGB: I notice a publication called Fourth and Sycamore really rated this Cynthia Cruz.
What a coincidence.
KGB: This album is very clever. She just told us thing’s were gonna change and then Happy Phantom is literally completely different.
DN: China. Musically beautiful, though it might be the only point where I feel like her metaphors strain a bit.
KGB: Which metaphors particularly offend you? Maybe I can help.
Is it china as both a faraway nation and a breakable material?
DN: She just stretches the “China” thing too far. The Great Wall thing, and yes, the breakable material thing.
“Maybe you got lost in Mexico”?
KGB: Is Mexico on the way from China to New York?
KGB: I didn’t think so.
DN: Do you agree about these metaphors, or do they not strike you as a bit thin?
KGB: Yes, I do find it a bit contrived. I like the song from a musical perspective but it seems like a good idea that got taken a bit too far.
Via Mexico, in fact.
DN: Nicely done.
The next three songs—Leather, Mother, and Tear in Your Hand—all feel a little forgettable compared to the best songs on the album. Not bad, just…meh.
KGB: Do you think a lot of albums have a great first half and then tail off a little bit? I developed a theory about this a few years ago and I think it applies here. But then, those first few tracks are magnificent. I’m not sure how you could follow Silent All These Years.
DN: Yes, I do, actually.
What is your theory to explain this phenomena?
Often the final track will be a killer, but much of the second half is often lagging on great albums.
Joshua Tree is a classic example.
KGB: Well, all albums have to start with 3 bangers. Everyone knows this. And the last 2 songs have to be memorable. But everything in between is just whatever else they had lying around. These days, it doesn’t actually matter, because unless you’re listening to vinyl, nobody listens to whole albums in order.
DN: That sounds about right. I’m still pretty religious about listening to whole albums though, even with Spotify.
KGB: I don’t know anything after track 3 on Joshua Tree. Point proved.
DN: I wonder how far away we are from abandoning the album concept altogether and just progressively releasing individual tracks.
KGB: I think that already happens, doesn’t it? I don’t know how, but Ed Sheeran (wait, don’t fall asleep! Come back!) occuppied positions 1-10 on the UK singles chart about a year ago. It was nearly as depressing as watching the news.
DN: I mean, I think we’re functionally there, but we’re still feeding that process from albums and marketing those albums.
And that Sheeran tidbit is painful.
KGB: Do you think Tear in the Hand sounds like a Roxette song?
I feel like I could sing It Must Have Been Love over this.
DN: I’d have to listen to it again and see. Let’s bookmark that question.
Speaking of great (almost) endings, how about Me and a Gun?
KGB: Oh god, that song. It’s just brutal. Her voice, isolated from the piano, is almost too vulnerable to listen to. But there’s also that snarl to it, that urge to survive. It’s an astonishing piece of music.
DN: Yes. One of the most raw and painful songs I know of.
And doing it a capella just hammers all that in more brutally.
KGB: It’s so intimate, and impossible not to focus on.
DN: She said she’ll never talk about that night on that level again, after that song.
KGB: The lyrical content is quite different in tone too. It lacks any of those metaphors we’ve talked about. Jesus takes another battering here too. I’m listening to it now and it all makes me wince.
DN: What an emotional document this album is. It’s a work of literature.
I have nothing intelligent to say about the closing track. You?
KGB: Hang on, it just came on.
It is very long.
All songs should be 3 minutes, in my view.
How do you follow Me and a Gun though?
DN: I expect her to be buying a stairway to heaven by the end of this.
KGB: Or wondering which way the wind blows.
DN: Me and a Gun should be the closing track. Though I guess leaving your listeners there might be especially brutal.
And I guess that’s where we should end our discussion.