Tori Amos wasn’t always so difficult to understand. Her solo debut, Little Earthquakes, was brilliant throughout — equal parts brooding (Crucify), accusatory (Precious Things), wistful (Winter and Mother) and giddy (Happy Phantom). It was accessible. And unexpected, especially if you saw her in her old group, Y Kant Tori Read, where she looked and sounded like a slightly angrier Debbie Gibson.
The album Under the Pink brought in some musical and lyrical twists. Her music got most sophisticated as her lyrics went farther into abstraction. With God, she showed she knows her way around tricky time signatures as well as any prog-meister. Cornflake Girl was an unusual metaphor. Maybe a mixed metaphor, too — shouldn’t the raisins be over with the Raisin Bran, not the Corn Flakes? Oh, was that the point?
In any case, Tori had established herself as a little enigmatic. Beavis and Butthead were intrigued, watching her caress rats and snakes in God: “It’s like … she’s pretty hot, but … I don’t know, man. I’d like … stay away from her.” “She’d probably like … leave a rat’s head on your bed or something.”
And the reactions got weirder. A friend of mine relayed a review comment: “She caressed the piano keys like a lover and pounded them like a rapist.” A 1994 Rolling Stone story quoted a concert fan yelling, “You’re not beautiful!” A man responded, quite appropriately: “Bullshit!” Sure, it’s empowering to free women from the social constructs of “beauty,”, but on what planet is “You’re not beautiful” a compliment?
Besides, she wasn’t eager to be pinned down by feminist convention. “I’m not into the all-male, all-female thing,” she told Rolling Stone when asked about Lilith Fair, in which she did not appear. “Where’s Dionysus? Where’s Hades? You can’t cut out the testosterone.”
Nor can you cut out the sexual imagery from her music. Her debut had a song called Leather, positing herself standing naked and screaming “as loud as your last one.” Under the Pink upped the ante with Icicle, a jolly tune mixing masturbation and religion.
Little wonder Bob’s Burgers, years later, parodied Tori with the brilliant Megan Mullally as a piano bench-straddling singer named Tabitha Johansson. “It’s not subtle,” indeed.
That’s the image that stuck in many listeners’ heads. But in 1996, two years after Under the Pink, Amos released Boys for Pele, where she went from “quirky but coherent” to “??!!?”
And dark. She broke up, personally and professionally, with producer Eric Rosse. Not saying she was bitter, but the “Pele” in the title is a Hawaiian volcano goddess to which she was sacrificing men, and she’s pictured on the album cover with a rifle and an expression that says, as Michael Stipe once snuck onto the airwaves, “don’t f— with me.”
“Highly ambitious, challenging, idiosyncratic, and confounding,” says AllMusic’s Steve Huey. Yes, it was. Like fellow abstract lyricist Kristin Hersh, Amos gives an impression in interviews that she’s not fully in control of her songs, but that they pour out through her.
So that brings us to the lead single from that album, Caught a Lite Sneeze, forever famous as the first single to be released on the Internet before it was released elsewhere. (Yes, kids, there was once a time in which we had to go to places called “record stores,” where we would memorize liner notes to albums we hadn’t yet bought while we tried to think of something cool to say to the cute clerk working there.)
Our usual song-interpretation sites are remarkably useless with this one. SongMeanings.net has one solid attempt. SongFacts debates whether she’s angry with ex-boyfriend Eric Rosse or had a turbulent affair with Trent Reznor, who gets a shoutout of sorts with the line “make my own pretty hate machine.” Genius.com has exactly one contribution, telling us “Pretty Hate Machine” was an album by Nine Itch Nails. Yes, Itch. And yes, “Nine Itch Nails” will be the name I use if I ever open an STD clinic.
I did find one concerted effort to make sense of it all. It’s apparently full of the tension between masculine and feminine, as well as the tension between the divine and the dreary old real world.
One point on which these folks agree: The “lite sneeze” is a relationship that was more trifling than she first thought. It’s not a chronic … um … disease, though in this case the disease would’ve been a good thing. Neither is it the rockin’ pneumonia or the boogie-woogie flu.
Let’s take a peek at the video and see if it gives us any more clues.
0:01 – The swan wants to walk into the ornate alley. That sounds like something undercover agents say to each other.
0:20 – Tori is lying in an alley filled with leaves and ghosts. And now heat lamps?
0:38 – Hey, the swan made it inside. But it’s … on the ceiling? Spider-Swan, Spider-Swan, does whatever a spider can …
0:43 – Amelia Earhart’s dashboard!
0:53 – Waves have no effect on Tori’s gurney. But she caught a lite sneeze, a light breeze and a lightning seed, which our blogger above thinks is a pregnancy.
1:00 – Boys on her left side, boys on her right side, multiple Shane Battiers rising from the ocean near an oil rig.
1:10 – Boys in the middle and you’re not here. Who’s “you”? And how does she get her teeth so white?
1:20 – Apparently, the line here is that she needs a big loan from the girl zone. Thus canceling out the boys? Meanwhile, we see a prototype for the wall that will be needed to protect New York from rising sea levels when climate change really hits.
1:35 – OK, now it’s about Flat Earth theory. (You all saw my story on that, right?) The balloonist will later claim to have circumnavigated the globe, but the ship sailing off the edge proves otherwise.
2:00 – The swan is back, just as Tori starts to sound like Bjork. This is surely a psychic vision of the 2001 Academy Awards.
2:13 – This child is from a horror movie, right?
2:24 – Chairs are falling off the edge of the world. This verse mentions a Belle and a Sister Ernestine, not that you can really tell — it’s one of Tori’s least enunciated verses.
2:46 – The edge of the Flat Earth is not an ice wall. It’s a levitating Tori Amos.
3:05 – One of the more intriguing lyrics — “Use that fame, rent your wife and kids today.” Sounds snarky.
3:20 – The pretty hate machine kicks in as Tori’s voice goes to a snarl.
3:50 – The images are rapidly repeating now. The people who look like they’re at a funeral. Tori flipping in midair or lying on the leaves. Then levitating again near an offshore wind farm still under construction. Is that supposed to be the answer to the oil rig earlier?
And it ends with her falling into a graveyard.
Somewhere in all that, we’re supposed to bring our sons to Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love, fertility and warfare. Seems about right.
Musically, it’s intriguing, continuing to add layers to the simple piano sound that dominated her first releases. The lead keyboard is a harpsichord (or at least a harpsichord sound), neatly contrasted with industrial-esque clanging percussion.
She’d have better success marrying her musical ambitions with her lyrics with the lead single from 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel, a mesmerizing song called Spark. The subject matter is heavy — it’s about a miscarriage — but she tells the story well, shifting through a complex time signature with brooding piano lines and guitar accents. That album also showed she hadn’t lost her playful side, with the wry She’s Your Cocaine.
Then with the live tracks on To Venus and Back, she showed she could play the hell out of the piano, from the bouncy intro to Cornflake Girl to the all-out frenzy of Precious Things, building off ace drummer Matt Chamberlain’s primal beat and taking the listener on a breathtaking ride. She also extends Waitress into a 10-minute power-prog odyssey.
Since then, she has followed her muse, adopting a different persona for different songs. She took it literally with Strange Little Girls, covering a diverse set of artists — Eminem, Velvet Underground, The Beatles, Joe Jackson — with a different photo and personality for each. Scarlet’s Walk, with the modestly successful single A Sorta Fairytale, was a look back at America from her studio in Cornwall. She’s dabbled in classical music and a musical called The Light Princess, but she came back to pop/rock with 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines, which is worth a few listens.
And she’s come full circle, once again touring as a solo pianist/singer.
Hard-core Tori fans may disagree, but she’s really at her best when she’s direct and comprehensible. Caught a Lite Sneeze is in the second tier — musically engaging, lyrically intriguing. Nothing wrong with that.