Under the Pink, Tori Amos’ second solo album, continues the singer/songwriter’s exploration of her life’s journey from the confines of a strict religious upbringing to personal and artistic freedom. She is armed with an attention-grabbing mezzo-soprano and lyrics that can kill with a turn of phrase. And Amos is still unsatisfied. God, parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, herself: No one escapes judgment.
Once again, Amos accompanies herself on piano, with drums, bass and guitar assisting; the occasional string arrangement or synth is added for not-so-subtle effect. Amos’ piano, more often than not, is deceptively soft; her voice drips with bitter disappointment or fills with paranoid self-awareness, as on the opener “Pretty Good Year,” an apparent paean to idyllic childhood in which Greg, the young protagonist, “writes letters with his birthday pen/Sometimes he’s aware that they’re drawing him in.” Her acoustic bent is well served on the album: The piano is not hidden beneath grandiose group arrangements as it was on her previous outing Little Earthquakes (1992), and her quirky hesitations and sudden shrieks are more in tune with the emotional states of her characters. Under the Pink still doesn’t match Amos’ riveting, piano-only live performances, but it sure comes close.
Amos acts as narrator throughout the album’s 12 vignettes, switching from first person to third person and back. The strength of her convictions (or the terror of her lack of them) can be off-putting, but typically her lyrics are more intimate than intimidating. On “God,” one of the album’s (relative) rockers and its first single, she proclaims simply: “God, sometimes you just don’t come through/Do you need a woman to look after you?” “Bells for Her” has a vaguely yuletide air (the piano notes ring like chimes), but it is anything but cheery. Girlhood friends face the adult games of love, war and death with a strange, existential hope. There is fantasy violence (on “The Waitress,” Amos wants to murder a flirting, inattentive waitress); molestation and rape (“Icicle”); deception (“The Wrong Band”); and expectation and anxiety (“Baker Baker”).
Under the Pink is Amos’ honest reporting of a life fraught with turmoil and disappointment. Can it take her beyond her devoted cult to greater popularity? Possibly. The album is focused, the lyrics quirky and personable, the melodies eccentric enough to entice and simple enough to be catchy. Those qualities — and her emotional fearlessness — make Tori Amos a musical find to treasure.