To Venus and Back
ASSOCIATE ARTS EDITOR
Tori Amos is one of those impossible figures in the music world who, for various reasons, arouse so much hype that one continually has to wonder if there is any substance behind the public image. Tori Amos’s latest release, To Venus and Back, silences any such doubts. It is also an amazing testament to a passionate and talented singer, songwriter, musician, and producer. The 2-CD album combines a live disc with a studio album, and highlights the fascinating musical language that this multi-talented performer continues to develop as she explores the elements of a song: subject matter, lyrics, melody, harmony, and structure.
The only real complaint about the live half of To Venus and Back is that it isn’t three times as long. The disc features live performances from Tori’s 1998 Plugged tour. In contrast to her previous three tours in which it was just a woman, her piano, and a microphone on the stage of a theater filled with a silent entranced audience, the Plugged tour traded intimacy for a more raucous show. It added a fantastic supportive band, Tori’s first for a tour, consisting of Steve Caton on guitars, Jon Evans on upright and electric bass, and Matt Chamberlain on drums.
The songs on the disc were selected with the intent to model an actual concert, as opposed to forming a greatest hits collection, two of the best tracks being staples of the tour and always among the highlights of the show. The first of these, “Precious Things,” is the perfect opener and never fails to rouse the audience. The second of these is “Waitress,” the last song before the encores, signaling that the show is reaching its close but also that the best was still to come. This song is a revamped version off Tori’s sophomore release Under the Pink, and the song builds and builds to a point that doesn’t seem humanly possible to sustain any longer without exploding, and then it builds some more before it finally reaches its climax. The disc does a remarkable job of attempting the impossible in catching the energy of these and other powerhouse tracks, such as “Cruel,” “Space Dog,” “Cornflake Girl,” and the inspired, new version of “Sugar.”
The middle of the disc is the analogue to the tour section commonly referred to as “Secret Time,” when Tori would play two or three songs solo. The first of these three songs selected for the album is “Cooling,” one of Tori’s best ballads. “Cooling” had only appeared previously on a UK single, but she played it often on the tour, prefaced with the comment that although it was one of her favorites, it “just didn’t want to be on any of the albums.” The song, finally on a wide-release album, is from the last show of the tour and definitely one of the highlights of the disc.
Along with the more familiar songs from the tour, some slightly less frequently heard songs also appear on the disc, including “Girl,” “Little Earthquakes,” “Bells for Her,” and “Purple People.” Some of these choices are a bit puzzling, especially considering that so many of the tracks are songs from Tori’s first two albums, while some other excellent songs are missing. One can only hope that these tracks will appear as b-sides to forthcoming singles. However, the choice of songs on the disc leaves little to complain about, and fans who caught the tour will appreciate finally getting the long-overdue disc of live material with such high-quality sound, ambience, and balance.
As memorable and gratifying as the live disc is, however, it is the studio half of To Venus and Back that is the real focus of the album. Indeed, it seems unfair to couple the two discs together as one album, since singly they are each worthy of full attention. The two discs inhabit completely different, not necessarily complementary, worlds: as a pair, they almost detract from each other’s potency. Nevertheless, the eleven subtle, finely-crafted studio tracks succeed in standing their ground and captivating the listener despite the absence of the familiar ear-catching songs of the live disc.
The new tracks feature a wider palette of sounds than even Tori’s most recent album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, which was a big break from her previous three albums in all respects. To Venus takes the experimentation of Choirgirl a step further and features more electronics, more transfixing rhythm, and a generally denser sound, focusing more clearly on a consistent overall sound than Choirgirl’s divergent twelve tracks.
Although the studio album obviously has a new sound, there are many characteristics typical of Tori’s previous work that appear upon closer inspection. These include complex harmonies, layered vocals (as on the dark “Suede”), cryptic lyrics, virtuosic keyboard playing, tongue-in-cheek humor (most apparent on the trippy track “Datura”), religious/mythological imagery, visceral subject matter (the memorable “Juarez” concerns the recent brutal massacres of women near the Mexican/U.S. border), and gorgeous, unpredictable melodies, some of Tori’s finest, among them the powerful ballads “Lust” and “1,000 Oceans.”
Also, like in her previous albums, Tori’s choice of lyrics relating to space imagery masterfully binds the separate songs of the album into a cohesive whole. She also plays with connotations in a way that is distinctly idiosyncratic, such as in “Glory of the ’80s,” with its title that brings to mind big hair, glam rock, and the brat pack, but which eschews petty nostalgia and instead captures the decadence of the decade. In addition, it is easy to note the influence of her last album and tour, since more than a few songs feature repetition, generally looser structures, and more fully integrated keyboards.
Long-time fans may at first be put off by the unavoidable electronic sounds of the new album and the somewhat less personal lyrics and subject matter, but this album is still thoroughly enjoyable, since it includes some of Tori’s finest works since her classic 1992 debut, Little Earthquakes. Of the 11 tracks there simply are no duds, and although each of the songs is sophisticated in almost all respects, they somehow manage concurrently to be more accessible than her last two albums. With the combination of live and new studio works, this is an album that is sure to please a large audience and represents Tori at her best.