The tension between secular desires and spiritual devotion has fueled rock & roll frenzy since Day One, so to speak, when the fundamen-talist-reared Jerry Lee Lewis took the highway to hell on “Great Balls of Fire” and the gospel-trained Little Richard began testifying in ecstatic boogie-woogie whoops. At various times in their lives, Jerry Lee and Little Richard have renounced and denounced rock & roll as “the devil’s music.” At other times the musical spirit has caused them to rise up out of their seats and throw themselves into their pianos with the unrepentant passion of possessed souls.
Anyone who has seen Tori Amos live knows that she, too, can writhe on the piano bench like a demon in heat. The daughter of a Methodist minister and a recovering Los Angeles big-haired heavy-metal singer herself, Amos knows what it’s like to be stuck between hard rock and holy rolling. But as 1994’s mischievous hit single “God” showed, she’s more interested in questioning the powers that determine the notions of sin than in castigating herself for guilty pleasures.
“God” was just the opening salvo in the war on religion that Amos wages full-scale on Boys for Pele, her third solo album. This time around she’s criticizing not just her own Christian heritage but most of the world’s major religions. On various tracks she aims at Mohammed, Lucifer, Jupiter and a voodoo priest. The attack on deities is actually just part of Amos’ larger struggle, which she has been detailing in oft-intimate terms since 1992’s Little Earthquakes: the struggle against the patriarchy in general, with her own father symbolizing the fatherocracy. To borrow from the sort of mushy-headed New Age feministspeak that is Amos’ stock in trade, she’s on a mission to reclaim her — and our — inner goddess. “I need a big loan from the girl zone,” she sings on “Caught a Lite Sneeze.” Pele is a Hawaiian volcano goddess; the album’s title could be interpreted as either (1) an appreciation of men willing to worship the female spirit or (2) a call for human sacrifice.
Although it’s a bit hard to muddle through the enigmatic artifice and fanciful metaphors that Amos wraps around her songs like so much obscuring gauze, the answer’s a playful (2). And who could blame her? As Little Earthquakes’ a cappella “Me and a Gun” described in harrowing detail, Amos was raped several years ago, and she has been trying to recover her sexual health — already damaged by her strict up-bringing — ever since. Many songs on the new album are about relationships with unappreciative men, culminating in the scary but lovely codependent ballad “Putting the Damage On.” In a demonstration of her bid for independence, Amos produced the 18 songs herself, her relationship with her previous producer and boyfriend, Eric Rosse, having ended.
Boys for Pele begins gently enough and indeed never works itself into a lather, which is one of Amos’ failings; she doesn’t seem to know how to rage. The first few cuts find the former child prodigy at her Bösendorfer piano and a harpsichord singing atmospheric Kate Bushstyle compositions called “Horses” and “Blood Roses.” While Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard pounded their demons out in big barrelhouse chords, the classically trained Amos painstakingly draws hers out note by tinkling note in dreamy songs that are part show tune, part church music. There’s a twisted current running “under the pink,” as she titled her last album, but as she trills away in a soprano voice that’s 40 percent breath, it’s hard to get past the fact that Amos has thanked “the faeries” on all her albums.
Fantasies are the refuge — and sometimes the revenge — of the powerless, who escape in daydreams what they can’t escape in reality. Amos gives ethereality substance when she declares, “Nothing’s gonna stop me from floating,” on “Father Lucifer.” Still, as the bass and guitar kick fitfully into the song, you get the feeling that what she would really like to do is bust out. She comes close on “Professional Widow,” with its “God”-like churning rhythm and provocative refrain of “star fucker, just like my daddy.” But as usual, the lyric’s meaning is oblique and unclear; Amos goes for the shock and giggle without going for the throat. She does a good PJ Harvey imitation on “Widow,” indicating that she’s absorbing some strong influences. I suggest she immerse herself in Babes in Toyland.
Amos clearly is talented, and the harpsichord brings out the medieval in her; at times, Boys for Pele sounds like Hildegard von Bingen meets Elton John. But there’s a fine line between precocious and precious, and even when she’s “fucking the piano,” as one observer put it, Amos has always seemed very conscious of her charms. Left to her own production, Amos takes chances with her songwriting, relying less on endlessly repeated choruses, and experimenting with strings, New Orleans brass and gospel choirs. But at 18 tracks, the album’s way too self-indulgent. Amos draws out every line with pretentious portent, but supposedly mystical lyrics like “And if I lose my Cracker Jacks at the/Tidal wave I got a place/In the Pope’s rubber robe” are ultimately mystifying and, well, bad. On the final track, after admitting her attraction to a damaging man, Amos, at least, admires a woman who takes a stand as she identifies with a friend who has killed a guy. But that, too, is just a fantasy of someone else’s life, a far-off “Twinkle.”