Gotta Get You Back to You: Tori Amos’ Native Invader
National Music Reviews
Never a stranger to a political stance in her songwriting and ever attuned to her muses, Tori Amos’ 15th studio album is full of a raw energy and power that immediately draw the listener in. The album’s apt title, Native Invader, partially recalls her great lines from “A Sorta Fairytale” about her road companion: “Looking for some Indian blood. Find a little in you, find a little in me.” Parts of this new record could be darker companion pieces to “Fairytale” and some of the other brilliance found on the album from which it was culled, her monumentally important epic, 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk. Born after the ashes of 9/11 and full of America’s collective emotional upheaval, it was and remains cathartic. The political stance on Native Invader recalls 2007’s fiery American Doll Posse, especially its pointed political songs “Yo George,” “Code Red” and “Posse Bonus.” And arguably, one could exchange the name “Laura” from the latter to “Melania” and the sucker punch it deals would be just as relevant today. Which leads us to what a different record this could have been, but Amos states that while she set out to make something else, she felt compelled to follow and couldn’t ignore her muses after last year’s election results and then, more importantly, her beloved mother Mary’s recent stroke.
Stark keys announce the absolute epic “Reindeer King” that opens Invader. It seems to contain all of Amos’ best elements: mysterious lyrics, intricate backgrounds, whispered yet gradually building, powerful vocals and, centrally, of course, her beloved piano. As much a nod to her theme here of the natural world being destroyed (and where global warming and the denial of science is taking it), it is also a politically charged affair and an emotional rumination of her world after her mother’s stroke: “Grief it brings need / The naked freeze caught in the frost … Numb unbearable thoughts your inner need—fire not lost,” and a repeated “Gotta get you back to you.” Her metaphorical meeting with the “Reindeer King” and then skating across the frozen miles to Jupiter is as touching as it is profound.
“Wings” has a lovely metronome-like hypnotic quality and laments that “sometimes big boys need to cry.” The funkiness of “Broken Arrow” belies the sadness of losing our Lady Liberty and is where the album’s title originates. It is a grandly emotive plea and burrows into the listener’s subconscious, especially when Amos wonders “Have we lost her?” repeatedly. “She may seem weak / We may be battle-weary,” she laments of our decaying lands.
No less amazing in its reflection of nature is the album’s first taster, a shimmery breeze called “Cloud Riders.” Despite its keys being electric and playing alongside an electric guitar’s shiny strummed chords, its message swirls and stuns. It takes a few listens, but there is a brilliance there. “Girl it’s time you take back your life … I’m not giving up on us,” she cries, which seems to be as much of a political musing as an environmental one.
Speaking of the environment, the extremely catchy “Up The Creek” could be political and features a great vocal performance from Amos’ daughter Natashya Hawley (aka Tash), who really comes into her own vocally. “We may just survive / If the Militia of the Mind / Arm against those climate blind,” the pair advises. There is another mention of Mother Gaia and reference to the desert as our sister. Ever the feminist, it is powerful and both a rollicking and rallying track.
Gorgeous piano ballad “Breakaway” speaks of our collective national betrayal and of Amos feeling like she’s “being played.” Musically, “Breakaway” recalls some of the delicacy of her classic Under the Pink in its somber delivery. The electric keys enhance the gentle strum of “Wildwood,” which ponders how to rewrite the mass destruction of our lands and suggests getting back to the basics, to “make it rain.” Speaking of getting back to the core, electronica blips and beeps announce “Chocolate Song,” which deals with the power of language and words and how we don’t communicate the same way we used to before devices and social media (“We used to make happy,” Amos intones with real sadness) while juxtaposing imagery of sharing hot chocolate and its lusciousness—how this simplicity can heal.
The planetary cautionary song “Bang” is pure Carl Sagan meets the science deniers: “Bang the world now traumatized, by a cluster of hostile humans who sigh, with their warlords of hate, so we must out-create.” But the beauty of the song is found when she repeats “All I wanna be / Is the very best machine I can be” while quoting molecular elements.
“Climb” is another piano-centric ballad, highlighted by a beautiful vocal performance. “All of me / Wants to be / Believe that the angels will find me / Save Veronica,” and conjures intriguing religious imagery, admonishing, “Only when you hope can you forgive.” The intriguing keys and throbbing drums of “Bats” features staggered vocals that echo its darkness and pagan-leaning lyricism. In other words, it’s mysteriously brilliant and beckons revisiting. Electronica highlights the relatively short “Benjamin” the “science whiz,” but the track is pure intriguing fun, referencing a meeting “at the back of the record store with the tapes you secure / Prove the extent of the viciousness as they purge out scientists.”
Finally, “Mary’s Eyes” encapsulates the delicate pain at the heart of the album. Amos’ mother’s stroke two months after last year’s election left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Partial lament, but hopeful and joyous too, it is acutely beautiful and honors—as Amos always has throughout her composing career—her mother, but without any schmaltz. Mrs. Amos has been featured continuously in her daughter’s work from the very beginning (first as the subject of the b-side “Mary” from “Crucify” and also “Mother” from her debut, later the same “Mary” in a slightly re-conditioned form for her Tales Of A Librarian compilation’s lead single, and then numerous references throughout Amos’ extensive collection of songs).
Speaking of “Mary” the b-side, two supposed sequels to her debut solo album Little Earthquakes’ select b-sides (“Upside Down” and “Take To The Sky (Russia),” respectively) are delightfully not that at all: “Upside Down 2” and “Russia” featured on Invader’s deluxe versions are completely new originals. “Upside Down 2” is a straightforward piano and voice piece that gently pleads, holding out hope for the future. “Those smiling faces / We’ve worn them before,” she reminds us. Shorter, but no less intriguing (including its Russian radio sampling) is “Russia.” Likewise a voice and piano—save the samples—composition, it also references the album’s title and is quite pretty. It is always admirable when a composer with such prolific output shares so many tracks. In our digital age, it is like getting her always fascinating b-sides in one generous package, and aren’t we luckier for it!
Native Invader is out on Sept. 8 via Decca Records. It is available in a wide variety of formats (including a limited CD and digitally with the two bonus tracks and special edition vinyl) and various bundle options from her Pledge Music page store. Amos’ North American tour—sadly, she is skipping Salt Lake, at least for this leg—kicks off on Oct. 24 in Saint Paul. –Dean O Hillis