Monday, 14 August 2017

CD Review: Native Invader by Tori Amos (Decca, 2017)

[SPOILERS WARNING: This is a long-form review of Amos's latest album which features some brief quotes from lyrics alongside other cross-references. If you'd prefer to make those discoveries for yourself while listening to the record, then you might want to come back and read this review at a later date. Thank you. AR]

“Knowledge sown in Gaia’s bones…/Her uncorrupted soul/Will not be possessed or owned.” Briskly intoned by Tori Amos and her daughter Natashya Hawley on the centrepiece song, “Up the Creek,” these lyrics are among those that cut closest to the heart of the concerns of Amos’s new album, Native Invader, a record which frequently turns to nature, to the rhythms of (Mother) Earth, as a source of strength and wisdom against divisive, destructive forces. As the album’s pitch-perfect title suggests, and its closing (bonus) track “Russia” makes clear, these forces may be internal as much as external, referring to illnesses and disabling thoughts that might inhabit/inhibit an individual as well as to the oppressions perpetrated by leaders against their own people or against the land itself.

Originally inspired by a Smoky Mountains road-trip undertaken last summer, the album, Amos has said, dramatically shifted its focus due to two events: the result of the US election in November, and a stroke that left her mother Mary partially paralysed and unable to speak. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Native Invader combines and fuses all these elements, resulting in a work whose overt combination of personal and political preoccupations makes it a spiritual sister to two of Amos’s masterpieces, Scarlet’s Walk (2002) and American Doll Posse (2007).

Such syntheses have always been central to Amos’s music, of course. At her best, she’s an artist with an extraordinary gift for taking the temperature of the present moment, but doing so via unpredictable excursions into myth and history, and references (variously arcane or direct) to personal experience that render her work truly unique. The aforementioned “Up the Creek,” for example, is an urgent, echoy duet that feels both edgily contemporary – synth stabs, dramatic electronic flourishes, cathartic piano breakdown – and weirdly old timey in its incorporation of the expression “Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise” (itself made into a Jerry Reed-penned, Johnny Cash-popularised song in the 1950s). That expression (apparently a favourite of Amos’s beloved Cherokee Grandfather) is suitably subverted here, not least through a title that nicely nods to the notion that the phrase might refer to the Creek people as much as a body of water.

In its allusiveness, then, Native Invader is an album that makes the listener work: don’t be surprised to find yourself inspired to brush up on the theories of Carl Sagan, Thomas Nast’s 1830 cartoon of Andrew Jackson as the “Great White Father,” or the Veil of Veronica at various points as you listen. Following such trails is not only productive and exciting, though: it also seems absolutely central to the anti-isolationist ethos of an album that stresses the value of making connections, of seeing one thing in terms of another. Of building bridges, not walls.

As an in-house production built around Amos’s collaborations with her engineer/guitarist husband Mark Hawley (plus John Philip Shenale on two tracks), Native Invader shares much the same base as its predecessor, Unrepentant Geraldines (2014), which came after two of Amos’s most ambitious collaborative projects: the epic classical song cycle Night of Hunters (2011) and the sublime musical The Light Princess (2013) at the National Theatre. But the sound here is darker, richer-toned, and more ambient than the lighter, lower-keyed arrangements on Geraldines, sometimes gesturing back to Amos’s more elaborately produced works:  from the choirgirl hotel (1998), To Venus and Back (1999), and Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009).

A case in point is the album’s stunning opener “Reindeer King,” a majestic seven minute epic on which strings and synths are used as haunting accents to Amos’s piano-work, which is gorgeously rich and deep here. In commanding voice, Amos locates the listener “at the still point of the turning world,” reporting the title character’s advice to the divided. Entrancing and cinematic, it’s a spine-tingling song, destined to be canonised as a classic in her catalogue.

Without ever quite hitting that height again, the rest of the album offers many pleasures and puzzles for the listener. Those with kneejerk objections to Hawley’s guitar-playing (which is rather dominant throughout the first half) may be as resistant to the record as those sad cases who still keep complaining when each new  Amos album turns out not to be More Boys For Pele.

But those listening without prejudice will find that Hawley’s contributions add nuance and atmosphere at their best.  Warm washes of guitar reverberate through the measured, deceptively mellow first single “Cloud Riders,” on which a shooting star serves as an ambiguous portent of challenges to come, and the meltingly sensuous “Wildwood” which finds replenishment in the forest on its way to a poignant reunion. Meanwhile, there’s wah-wahing urgency to the  brilliantly intricate “Broken Arrow,” another standout track that advocates the avoidance of snap judgement reactions to political events at the same time as it urges citizens’ to vigilance of those in power. Amos drops a heart-stopping piano part behind her tribute to the resilience of “Lady Liberty” and the nation she represents: “she may seem weak/we may be battleweary/still those songlines sing.”

The album gets into somewhat stickier territory when it ventures into what has been one of Amos’s strongest suits: couples’ communication and relationship conflict. The twitchy, skeletal “Chocolate Song,” a tale of warring opposites spun from a domestic scene, works best as a rejoinder to Geraldines’s “Wild Way.” But the notion of “vowels and consonants” as “weaponry” was more dynamically explored on Night of Hunters’s great “Battle of Trees,” while the cooed opening line to the chorus sadly sounds destined for a Thorntons’ commercial. The softly pulsing “Wings” fares rather better as a song of relationship renegotiation, Amos bringing both sadness and sultriness to her delivery. Still the track doesn’t quite take flight, especially when the lyric “Sometimes big boys they need to cry” renders the theme too explicit.

More compelling and mysterious by far is the plaintive piano dirge “Breakaway,” a quiet heartbreaker that laments betrayals, words unsaid and associations regretted, Amos smuggling in a tribute to a cherished collaborator and a reference to Miss Saigon, to boot. The beautiful “Climb” movingly sketches out suggestions of childhood transgression and shaming (and the challenges of overcoming that legacy) to brisk acoustic guitar and piano, with superb lyrics to make Sylvia Plath proud.

The one-word-titled alliterative songs are among the album’s oddest impulses. “Bang” is driving and dramatic, boldly subverting anti-immigrant sentiment through astrophysical references as it defines all humans as refugees from the cosmos, “molecular machines” composed of star stuff. “One story’s end/seeds another to begin,” Amos intones, and the song builds to an exhilarating finale. “Bats,” by contrast, is drifting and ambient, Amos’s narrator anticipating the arrival of a mythological female force:  “dripped in mist sisters rise/quietly from the fens and marshes/… Keep breathing, girl.” “Benjamin” celebrates other subversives, approaching the “Juliana vs. United States” climate change case via the figure of a “science whiz” investigator. There’s some lyrical awkwardness here, but the track’s proggy, retro ambience is arresting, with bleeps and buzzes providing their own message to decode.

The song leads into the album’s closer “Mary’s Eyes,” on which Amos confronts her mother’s aphasia. In contrast to the more intense and lugubrious tone of the similarly-themed  title track of The Beekeeper (2005), the vigorous piano work and beautiful strings here give the track an uncanny jubilance, as Amos refers to attempts to communicate through music. The sentiments expressed in the chorus encapsulate the mood of an album that's as devout as it is questioning, its merging of Christian, Pagan and Native American beliefs speaking not only to Amos's personal history but to the history of America itself. In a culture that presently feels so divided and fragmented, the record seems dedicated to revealing the importance of connection, the multiple ways in which, as “Mary’s Eyes” has it,  “patterns matter/stringing sequences together matters.”

The titles of the bonus tracks, “Upside Down” and “Russia,” gesture back to two of Amos’s earliest songs. Intimate piano-only numbers which are equally delicate yet determined in tone, the former focuses on an outsider’s resolution to see the happiness of others as inspiration rather than threat. Book-ended by numbers station samples, “Russia” is more pointed, highlighting the divisions stoked by both Left and Right as it locates State surveillance in the East and West. A Russian leader (though not necessarily the one you might expect) gets name-checked, as Amos at last unfurls the album’s title here.

It's a stirring, quietly anthemic conclusion to an album which, despite a couple of underachieving moments, feels vital, its combination of the combative and the conciliatory speaking directly to our polarised period. Encompassing earth and sky, spirit and machine, science and soul, Amos has once again produced a richly absorbing record that bestows balance, bringing us back to ourselves, giving us the strength and courage to go on.

Native Invader is released on Decca Records on 8th September 2017. 

All album images by Paulina Otylie Surys.

My interview with Amos will be published at PopMatters next week. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

Theatre Review: Apologia (Trafalgar Studios)

Following on from his popular 2008 Royal Court debut with the dual-timeline gay drama The Pride, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s second play Apologia was produced at the Bush in 2009. It’s one of a number of plays of its period (Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love and Stephen Beresford’s The Last of Haussmans spring to mind) that attempted to explore the legacy of 1960s radicalism by focusing on the generational conflict between the now-ageing radicals (often represented by a strident maternal figure) and their offspring in the present day. While these works differed a little bit in their attitudes, it’s notable that most offered a judgemental and unsympathetic take on the ’60s generation, flagging up the hypocrisies and compromises of the baby boomers in a way that seemed designed to flatter younger audiences eager to view themselves as victims of the older generation’s selfishness.

Somewhat tweaked, Kaye Campbell’s play now receives its first major revival at Trafalgar Studios in a production by Jamie Lloyd (who directed The Pride in 2013) that casts Stockard Channing as the ’60s representative. Kristin Miller is a leading art historian who was a firebrand of the radical Left in her youth. She’s just published a memoir, in which her two sons, Peter and Simon, have not been mentioned.  The dramatic device used to bring her and said sons into collision is, predictably enough, a dinner party, at which Peter, a banker, arrives with his American girlfriend Trudi, to be joined by Simon’s girlfriend, Claire, an ambitious actress currently starring in “a serialised drama that happens to follow the trajectories of various people's lives". Simon himself, a depressed failed novelist, is late to the party, but also along for the bumpy ride is Kristin’s bawdy gay pal Hugh.

It’s the most conventional of dramatic set-ups, then, and one that’s not entirely persuasive. We’re meant to see how  Kristin’s “neglect” of her sons has led them to life choices that directly oppose hers, but details such as Peter’s having met Trudi at a prayer meeting (to his mother’s horror)  never completely convince.  Kaye Campbell certainly tries for fair-mindedness in his presentation of the characters but sometimes accomplishes this by foul means, briskly scuttling two characters off-stage so that a third can deliver a sympathetic speech that’s meant to fundamentally change our view of the heroine.

Reining in his tendency for pushy touches, Lloyd’s production treats the play in an unfussy manner, with Soutra Gilmour supplying an attractive, picture frame-bordered kitchen set. The production has an interesting rhythm, its broad comic tone giving way to a quiet, tender (if overextended) mother/son scene at the mid-point. And the essential mediocrity of the material is partially compensated for by a couple of fantastic performances.

Joseph Millson doubles efficiently though not scintillatingly as the resentful sons, while Desmond Barrit gets laughs for fruitily playing Hugh as the ever-quipping quintessence of camp. (Nonetheless, the character is a stereotype, with no suggestions of interior life; it’s a jarring touch when we learn that he and Kristin are still out there attending protest marches.)
Channing is absolutely terrific, though, underplaying effectively to avoid making Kristin a mere monster; with stillness and economy, she suggests the doubts and disappointments lurking beneath the character’s implacable facade. Kristin’s trajectory - from icy intelligence to inevitable emotional breakdown - is highly problematic but Channing makes that arc a whole lot less gruesome than it might be, scrupulously avoiding sentimentality.

The production’s other great performance comes from Laura Carmichael (so memorable in Lloyd’s thrilling production of The Maids last year) who finds the goodness and integrity in Trudi’s comically perky politeness.  Freema Agyeman  is less assured, but gives some gusto to Claire’s run-ins with Kristin. “It’s not a soap,” goes the running gag about Claire’s TV show. Kaye Campbell’s play is, at heart, a sitcom. Its conflicts frequently feel contrived, but the cast sometimes succeed in bringing a few sparks of truth to the table.

Runs until 18th November. 

Festival Report: Transatlantyk Festival, Łódź (14 -21 July 2017)

My report on the 2017 Transatlantyk Festival is up at Film International. You can read it here.