Tori Amos is a songstress of many hats, some of which are more flattering than others. She started out sporting a rock-chick hat, along with a bustier and the requisite spandex pants, back in the pop-metal Y Kant Tori Read days.
Then it was the chapeau of survival with Little Earthquakes, the centerpiece of which is the a capella “Me And a Gun,” Amos’ account of being sexually assaulted. (Amos would later refer to this experience in more flippant terms: “I got my rape hat on/But I always could accessorize,” she quips in “Talula.”) By the time Amos’ last album, Boys for Pele, hit record shops in 1996, she was wearing too many caps to count: producer, piano prodigy, first-class fruitcake. On Amos’ highly anticipated fifth album, from the choirgirl hotel, the girl with the piano reveals just how well she can accessorize.
The result is a new Amos sound, one that is richer, more complex, more polished — and in many ways more accessible — than some of her previous efforts, like a satisfying, balanced meal. Most of Amos’ recordings have been informed by tragedy and loss, and choirgirl is no different. Around Christmas of 1996, Amos suffered a miscarriage, and the new album speaks directly to the loss of that child. In the first single,”Spark,” Amos’ voice is coolly distorted as she sings, “She’s convinced she could hold back a glacier/But she couldn’t keep a baby alive,” letting go on the bridge to reveal shades of rage.
All the elements on choirgirl are distilled in “Hotel,” which moves effortlessly from techno to baroque to piano thrash, never losing its harrowing feel. The song is like a spy novel, with Amos constantly seeking someone just out of reach. “You were wild/where are you now?” she yearns as the music shifts into a Nine Inch Nails-inspired interlude. The only things keeping choirgirl from being a perfect album are a few cloying moments in songs like “Northern Lad” – which sounds too much like something Amos would have sung in bars 15 years ago — but her ability to communicate through the tones of her voice, as well as through the impeccable structures of her music, are what make Amos so well-loved.