It is 2014, year of the cottage industry devoted to things that make you feel old. Here’s another: Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes came out 22 years ago. The number is telling: Amos is officially past the 20th-anniversary milestone, the one that determines whether an artist is going to get reassessed or not. Times have changed, as have album release cycles, and Amos has thrown herself into the modern landscape with vigor. Blowsy-bluesy track “Trouble’s Lament,” the lead single from her new studio album Unrepentant Geraldines, was premiered via Vice Magazine’s Noisey blog alongside a roster of hip whippersnappers like Diplo and Charli XCX. On Buzzfeed, you can take a quiz — not a fanwork lark, but an official, shareable, linkable survey written by someone who says she is Tori Amos — and once you plug in which marketing-survey movie genre you like (Drama? Suspense?), what you’d wear to a first date (LBD? Cutoffs? Nothing?), you’ll find out which Tori song you maybe embody: “Cornflake Girl”! Or “Raspberry Swirl,” or perhaps “Silent All These Years.” There are selfie contests on her Instagram (Amos has even called the album a “sonic selfie“) and Throwback Thursdays on her Twitter.
The biggest throwback of all might be the new album, Unrepentant Geraldines, which press and fans alike are calling a return to form. Part of that’s just timing; nothing’s more 2010s than reliving the ’90s, after all, and Amos, at a weird spot in her career, seems to have embraced that, too. A lot of her early-to-mid-’00s press coverage situated Amos in a Lilith faerieland that few critics took seriously, and that she’s just now escaping. She’s been prolific since her last “proper” release, 2009′s Abnormally Attracted to Sin, but her projects, while ambitious, have mostly been tangents: Song cycle Night of Hunters was technically impressive, but fated to the sidebars that pop artists’ classical jaunts usually get; Gold Dust, a re-orchestrated compilation album; Midwinter Graces, a Christmas album of the un-Christmassy Loreena McKennitt sort; and The Light Princess, Amos’s long-delayed musical, which premiered in the UK last fall but whose OST is just now being prepped for release. Before those came a series of albums — American Doll Posse, Abnormally Attracted to Sin — that even devoted fans (and her fans are more devoted than most) view as spotty to outright dreadful. A recalibration was in order; the only way out was backward.
The elephant in the room here, of course, is age. Amos turned 50 last year, as a line on “16 Shades of Blue” muses: “50 is the new black!” At a certain point every artist ages out of the hype cycle, swept down the ever-quickening stream of new-now-next. Some artists aren’t overly affected; they write Big Important Albums that are treated with caps, and they’re anointed canonical geniuses: Think Bruce Springsteen, or PJ Harvey, maybe Fiona Apple in 10 years. But Amos wrote her big important albums decades ago, and she’s since retreated further and further into her own self-contained, idiosyncratic musical universe, which is a draw for fans but perhaps puzzling for newcomers.
What’s left, then? Aging rock guys still get legacy reviews from the likes of Rolling Stone, but aging rock women, no matter how iconic, aren’t as likely to. Joan Jett’s new record did not, despite album guests Dave Grohl and Laura Jane Grace’s combined pedigree. As for Amos’s class of ’90s female alt-rockers like Lisa Loeb and Paula Cole, most of them are still plugging away, prolific but midlist, even self-released. (Both Loeb and Cole’s albums came out last year; this is likely the first you have heard of either.) Amos is acutely aware of this; in an interview with The Independent, she said, “Grandmothers singing rock songs? Yeah, there’s Patti Smith! There’s not a lot, OK?…We have to be writing things that are relatable, not just to kids but to people going through all kinds of things.”
Unrepentant Geraldines is her attempt at that relatability. It’s practically a retcon, the adult-contemporary affair you might imagine Amos gracefully maturing into after Scarlet’s Walk; judging by this album, absolutely nothing after Scarlet’s Walk happened, except maybe parts of The Beekeeper and Abnormally Attracted to Sin‘s spot of rustica, “Fast Horse.” It’s immaculately produced, from the reverb on her Bösendorfer to the shivers in her voice. There’s plenty of Americana, both in sound and theme. There are some of Amos’s most gorgeous moments in years — the fluttered echoes in Southern-gothic “Trouble’s Lament,” the harmonies that cloud “Oysters”‘ like breath on a window, the moments in “The Weatherman” where the floor falls from beneath the melody.
What there aren’t, are risks. “Wild Way” is Amos’s most straightforward ballad since the Beekeeper days, a love song for solo piano, with her usual semi-private language replaced with sentiments like: “I hate that you’re the one who can make me feel gorgeous with just a flick of your finger — it is that easy.” Elsewhere, there are vocoders, but subtle, tasteful ones, the kind employed when there’s a lyrical point to having vocoders (in this case, broken-down brain circuits). Even guitarist Mac Aladdin, notorious over the past few albums for barging into ballads to play like you’d imagine a guy called Mac Aladdin would, goes subtle.
Conceptually, Geraldines aims just as tastefully lofty: folklore (“Maids of Elfen-Mere” and “Selkie,” which thankfully drop back down to earth fast) and visual art — specifically, Cézanne and Daniel Maclise, who etched the titular Geraldine.
But the art conceit on Geraldines is restrained, limited to a few threads of a few songs — far safer than what the Amos who wrote mythology-gobbling harpsichord opus Boys for Pele or cross-country picaresque Scarlet’s Walk might have written. If there’s a year to go overtly conceptual or topical, 2014 would be it — a couple of Amos’s descendants, like St. Vincent and EMA, have already dropped big near-concept albums about surveillance and technology. Geraldines ticks both those boxes, and as with much of Amos’s political work post-2000, results range from nuanced to not. “America” is one of the subtler entries in the surprisingly rarified genre of songs about the wealth gap: “The other America might show up on Tuesdays at your kitchen door…[she] takes herself to night school to understand the law.” Elsewhere, the commentary is far more brash — the piano solo, the Police-ish guitar stabs and the spitballs at religion on the title track come off as nods to “God” and “Crucify,” or perhaps to the Abnormally Attracted to Sin/American Doll Posse twofer “Strong Black Vine” and “Body and Soul”: religion twisted into sex or politics. When these are lows, they’re really lows — as on terminally perky “Giant’s Rolling Pin,” which likens NSA spying to the pies from a diner near her Florida beach house. But the lyrical highs are among her highest yet: Album centerpiece “16 Shades of Blue,” which has wits’ end panic for every age. There’s also that rueful “50 is the new black” bit, or the album’s bitterest line, “At only 15 — I said 15 — her future’s bleak; she should have started this at three.”
Between this sentiment and later track “Rose Dover” — a parent hearing her child’s nightmare, arranged like slipping in and out of a bad dream — you wonder if one of the people Amos had in mind while composing Geraldines was her own teenage daughter. Tash had a bit part on Night of Hunters, and she returns her for duet “Promise.” There usually isn’t much to say about parent-child duets, but there’s one big, obvious thing here: The fact that Tash sometimes sounds almost exactly like Tori. This shouldn’t be so surprising, but it’s startling nevertheless to hear so singular a voice come from anybody else. “Promise” isn’t a straight duet so much as a duet-in-progress, Tori and Tash hashing out promises in little conversational pieces — “You mean this?” “Yes, make that promise.” The result is that half the time Tash’s lines seamlessly complete Tori’s, inflections and taffy-pulled vowels and all. The other half, she sings as you’d expect from a 13-year-old girl who listens to YouTube stars and “proper soul music“: latter-day R&B cadences and adlibbed melisma, like maybe in another world Tash would have a song on the Divergent soundtrack. Her presence alone does more to place Tori in 2014 than any selfie tie-in or #tbt could do. People go through all kinds of things between 15 and 50, after all; on Geraldines, there’s space for them all.