In Strange Little Girls Tori Amos has made a record that is huge in its strangeness: twelve covers of songs written by men — mostly for or about women, mostly without happy endings — in which Amos sings from the other side of the anxiety and sorrow. It is dangerous work. Amos is messing here with hard, cynical, even predatory males, including Lou Reed, Depeche Mode, the Stranglers and Eminem, redirecting narrative and intent as if these songs were hers alone. And as a songwriter, Amos would surely flinch if such liberties were taken with her own stories. But she attacks the possibilities in Strange Little Girls with a grip and grit often missing from her other solo work, and her handful of bull’s-eyes easily justifies her audacity.
Reed’s “New Age” is typical of Amos’ attention to emotional detail. The Velvet Underground’s 1970 recording on Loaded was a tale of quick sex and faded glamour, Reed’s rewrite of Sunset Boulevard for the Andy Warhol crowd (“You’re over the hill right now/And you’re looking for love”). Amos, however, turns to an earlier draft that Reed performed live with the VU in 1969, a first-person moan of a soul gorged with lust but racked with need. Scarring the heavy sigh of her electric piano with sneering-fuzz guitar, Amos boosts Reed’s monotonic empathy (“Waiting for the phone to ring/Lipstick on my neck and shoulder”) with the lived-in aroma of damp bedsheets and stubbed-out cigarettes. She also pulls “I’m Not in Love” out from under British ironists 10cc — stripping their 1975 hit of its art-pop gleam, dragging the denial inside into the open — and plugs Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” into a guitar-army squall cribbed from the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” connecting the twin electricities of pure devotion and animal sex.
Amos can misread the point of a song’s original arrangement. The Boomtown Rats’ 1979 single “I Don’t Like Mondays” was at once florid and chilling, arch pop journalism about a real-life tragedy: a teenage girl turned sniper. Amos’ naked piano and the girlish hurt in her voice soften the horror, reducing the killing to candied tragedy. She replaces the beastly guitars in Slayer’s “Raining Blood” with sepulchral piano but wails like she can’t make up her mind whether she wants to be Laura Nyro or Diamanda Galas.
But Amos always shoots bravely, if not wisely, and it is all worthwhile just for “97′ Bonnie and Clyde,” in which Amos turns Eminem’s wife-killing fantasy inside out: speaking in the afterlife whisper of the dead woman in the trunk of the car, comforting her baby daughter in the moments before her body is thrown into the water. “No more fighting with Dad, no more restraining order,” she coos with relief, intoning the hook from the Eminem track — the chorus of Bill Withers and Grover Washington Jr.’s “Just the Two of Us” — in her own piercing falsetto, a liberated spirit soaring in love and anguish. Eminem may get the royalties, but he no longer owns the song.