As anyone with even a passing interest in pop culture won’t have failed to notice, acres of media coverage, some of it sceptical but most of it rapturous, greeted the release of Beyoncé’s stunning visual album Lemonade back in May. The cultural conversation raised by that record rightly continues, yet, amid the articles and think-pieces examining the album’s inspirations and intertexts, one connection failed to be made by major commentators: namely, Lemonade’s links to Tori Amos’s Boys of Pele (1996), which was released exactly 20 years before.
From the fierce, feminist play with Deep South iconography, to details such as Beyoncé’s Amos-echoing left-leg-slung-across-the-chair-arm posture in the “Sorry” video, from the shared musical quoting of Led Zep’s “When the Levee Breaks” (in Pele’s notorious “Professional Widow” and Lemonade’s equally blistering “Don’t Hurt Yourself”), to both albums’ detection of wider historical, mythic and cultural patterns in the intimate sphere of male/female relationship conflict, the connections between the two records are numerous. Aside from short memories, maybe critics’ ignoring of the parallels is down, in part, to the current polarisations of US culture and its worrying segregation of “Black” and “White” artists, even as Lemonade itself subverts that tendency through Beyoncé's fruitful collaborations with Jack White, Ezra Koenig, and others. (Amos, for her part, performed two Beyoncé songs, “Crazy in Love” and “Halo,” on her last tour.)
For many listeners, Boys For Pele remains as significant and indelible a cultural touchstone as Lemonade will doubtless prove, and, 20 years on, the album gets the recognition it deserves thanks to a two-disc reissue from Rhino, who put out deluxe editions of Amos’s first two albums, Little Earthquakes (1992) and Under the Pink (1994), just last year. (You can read my review of those reissues here.)
The format is very much the same for the Pele release: once again, a re-mastered version of the record is supplemented by a second disc that contains B-Sides, live versions and rarities. But where the Earthquakes and Pink reissues featured no material that hadn’t already been released elsewhere, the new Pele goes one better, with a second disc that includes some previously unavailable tracks, most notably the near-mythic “To the Fair Motormaids of Japan,” a song that Amos devotees have been hankering to hear for many years. The inclusion of that track alone pretty much renders this an essential purchase.
When it came out in 1996, Boys for Pele sounded like nothing else out there, and, 20 years on, the album’s freshness, strangeness and idiosyncrasy haven’t dimmed. The record’s heady mix of styles - with classical flourishes (has the harpsichord ever sounded this demonic…?) merging with post-punk fury and ghostly gospel interludes segueing into surreal show-tune strut or achingly beautiful torch songs - remains as confounding as it is cohesive.
What links the diverse parts is the consistency of Amos’s vision (this was her first solo production job) and her skill at constructing an album as a compelling narrative in which sequencing and transitions are crucial. A brutal and beautiful fever dream of a record that boldly confronts violent impulses (while making space for lyricism, tenderness, humour and hope), Pele takes the break-up album into previously uncharted areas of myth, madness and magnificence. It still stands out as the weirdest, wildest item in the Amos canon, its musical ingenuity matched by brilliantly bizarre, allusive free-association lyrics and seriously strung-out vocals. (The album’s infamous, The Night of the Hunter-referencing liner art, meanwhile, involving dirty mattresses, pig-suckling, and pianos aflame, proved the perfect visual complement to the musical and lyrical subversiveness.)
Amos’s bravery in going to emotional extremes had already been signalled on Earthquakes and Pink, of course. But Pele, recorded in Ireland and the American South and named for the Hawaiian volcano goddess who demanded the ritual sacrifice of young males, represented a whole new kind of exorcism in its confrontation with patriarchal power. “She’s crawling on her knees towards a telephone that isn’t ringing,” Amos said, at the time, of the album’s protagonist. “To go there, you have to remember when you did that.”
As it turned out, a lot of folks were willing “to go there,” and Boys for Pele remains the album that certain fans would have liked Amos to have carried on remaking - a stance which may say less about her own evolution than about their inability to move on. Rich and daring, expansive and intimate, Pele still rewards, unnerves and challenges. And this reissue does what a good reissue should do: it succeeds in deepening a masterpiece. The second disc is the place where fans will head first and while some will probably find something to whine about there (the complaint “Where is ‘Samurai’”? has, inevitably, already been made) it’s likely that most will be sated by the abundance of riches on offer and the attention paid to the material’s sequencing and presentation.
The second disc actually opens with a familiar item: the so-called “Dakota Version” of “Hey Jupiter” which was released as a single and which Amos still performs in concert. B-Side fan favourites featured include the Chas and Dave covers “That’s What I Like Mick (The Sandwich Song)” and “London Girls,” which retain their quirky charm, thanks to the supple arrangements and the incongruity of Amos gleefully scatting out ineffably British lyrical references to “kippers,” “pie and mash,” “Derby chinaware,” and “Glenn Hoddle scoring a goal.” The deceptively playful childhood reminiscences “Toodles Mr. Jim” and “Frog on my Toe” are also highlights, as is the subversively mournful, resigned reading of “This Old Man” and the brisk, tremulous “Alamo.”
Some of the tracks here first featured on the mammoth A Piano collection that Rhino released ten years ago: these include “Fire-eater’s Wife/Beauty Queen,” a delicious prelude to Pele’s oblique opener, and “Walk to Dublin (Sucker Reprise),” a sublimely unhinged piece that finds double-tracked Amoses wailing “Do a jig!” against chunky piano and brusque harpsichord. Both songs gain from this new context, and the latter track now gets supplemented by its previously unreleased sister, “Sucker,” a wonderfully mean classical/grunge hybrid that starts out echoing “Jingle Bells” before morphing into something that Wanda Lewandowska and Kurt Cobain might have cooked up in collaboration.
Easily the most highly anticipated track here, “To the Fair Motormaids of Japan” does not disappoint, either: from its tumbling piano introduction, it’s an exquisitely evocative and enigmatic piece that could have fitted snugly into Pele’s arc, as it finds its narrator contemplating all manner of feats and humiliations in order to recapture something lost. “The things that I would go through/To turn you back around/The laces I would trip on/To bring on the circus crowds” Amos seethes, the song debating whether transformation (“the things that I turn into”) might be an expansion or a betrayal of the self, and ending in fittingly unresolved suspension.
Emotional complexity and ambiguity has also been a large part of Amos’s appeal, and songs like the brief and beautiful elegy “Graveyard” showcase her peerless combination of the sexual and the spiritual (“I’m coming in the graveyard/To sing you to sleep now”). Southern influences also continue to surface on a number of the tracks, including the demanding piano dirge “Sister Named Desire” (which might be Blanche du Bois’s post-incarceration fever dream) and “Amazing Grace/Til the Chicken”, a lovely piece of improvisation that showcases Amos’s warm rapport with bassist George Porter Jr. “This is our church, George,” Amos quips in the segue between the two songs.
Such exposing, loose and jazzy jams demonstrate the kind of spontaneity that Amos prefers to leave off of her studio work and save for live performance these days. The fine concert versions of “Honey” and “Sugar” included here find the songs starting to take shape in front of an audience in a way that their recorded versions can’t match, while the ironically subtitled, and frankly terrifying, “Professional Widow (Merry Widow Version)” remains one of Amos’s most uninhibited and startling vocal performances ever. The album signs off - succinctly and elegantly - with “In the Springtime of His Voodoo (Rookery Ending),” a spare and emotive extension of part of that song, as, against delicate piano, Amos breathes out: “Right there for a minute, you were my enemy…/Right there for a minute, I was over it.”
For many listeners, Boys for Pele has, over the years, served as its own church of sorts: a place of enlightenment, succour and empowerment in the midst of pain and confusion. Amos has produced much fantastic work of comparable ambition and immersive impact since: whether its 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, 2007’s American Doll Posse (a record whose relevance seems only to have multiplied in the last week), 2011’s Night of Hunters or her sublime foray into musical theatre, The Light Princess (2013). Pele, though, finds Amos at her most overtly radical and risk-taking: boldly challenging the oppressions of culture and history, pushing the album form in fresh directions, discovering a productive way to burn. In its expanded form, the brilliant Boys for Pele thrills, moves and inspires anew.
Boys For Pele: 20th Anniversary Reissue is out on Rhino on 18th November.