Track Record

REVIEW: Tori Amos’ Night of Hunters Is A Work In Process

So, can we talk about Tori Amos’ new album? Having had a chance to listen to Night of Hunters in its entirety, I’m…well, honestly, I’m still processing. Let’s process together, shall we? Back in May when the album was announced, I didn’t really bat an eye at the premise: a “21st century song cycle” inspired by classical themes. Sure. Whatever. It sounded like a concept album to me, familiar territory for Tori Amos fans. Maybe the fact that it was being released on a classical music label, Deutsche Grammophon, gave me pause, but as esoteric as she can get, Amos is still a pop musician. This was gonna be a pop album, right? Nope. This is not a pop album. I don’t just mean that it’s not going to get a lot of airplay or win any VMAs. And I don’t just mean that it’s a difficult work or that it may not appeal to a broader audience. No, this is something significantly different from a pop album. It’s a song cycle. And, what exactly is a song cycle anyway? Wikipedia?
“A song cycle is a group of songs designed to be performed in a sequence as a single entity. As a rule, all of the songs are by the same composer and often use words from the same poet or lyricist. Unification can be achieved by a narrative or a persona common to the songs…The unity of the cycle is often underlined by musical means…”
Ok. So it’s kinda like a concept album. Amos has used narrative in her work before—most notably on 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk. On Night of Hunters, she’s woven a rather compact tale of a couple’s parting and the woman’s first night without her man.

But it’s not the narrative element that sets the new album apart from Amos’ back catalog. It’s a completely different style of music. And not in the way that Boys for Pele’s minimal production contrasted with the rhythm and electronic flourishes of From the Choirgirl Hotel, or how The Beekeeper’s gentle earthiness contrasted with American Doll Posse’s gritty, aggressive rock.

When Amos says “classical themes,” she means it: This is chamber music. No guitars or percussion—just piano, strings and lots of woodwinds. I supposed it has most in common with deep cuts like “Gold Dust” and “Yes, Anastasia.” The sort of sweeping, orchestral songs with which Amos occasionally closes her albums.

It’s not exactly an unexpected move. As NPR Music’s Ann Powers writes, this is the album Amos was perhaps born to write. But it’s bound to inspire some mixed reactions.

Amos purists—those who hanker for the days when she toured solo at the piano—will probably love Hunters. It’s got the subtlety, the quiet beauty they come to Amos for.

Those who prefer her gutsier work, the bombast of the live version of “Dragon,” will have trouble with the album. To them, I’d suggest approaching Hunters as though it were a film: Listen to it once, maybe twice, deal with it—and then move on. It is lovely music, beautiful and moving, but in the way Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark is beautiful and moving. You watch it. You love it. But it’s not a movie you just pop in on Friday night with a bowl of popcorn. Similarly, Night of Hunters isn’t an album you’re going to put on your iPod and listen to on the way to work in the morning.

But who knows, maybe you will. By now I’ve listened to Hunters start to finish a few times, and it’s already starting to grow on me a bit.

Like I said, still processing…

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  • Franco

    Peter Zimmerman writes in his review of Night of Hunters, “Important, though, in digesting the work is to understand the paradigm shift from pop to classical, so those with an aversion to woodwinds or looking for a catchy hook better pass. But for those willing to dive in and adjust their perspective in moving forward, the benefits are many and varied.”

  • Tommy

    I don’t really see why Tori doing a classical album is really that different or hard to process. Her music has always had a strong classical element to it. I guess she’s technically a pop artist, but she’s not like Britney or Gaga. I don’t see how you can really like Tori without having some appreciation or understanding of classical music.

  • Jimmy Fury

    Dancer in the Dark was the single most depressing, painful, soul crushing thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I swear I didn’t smile or laugh for at least a week.

    Oh god just thinking about it makes me want to go sleep for 15 hours and then cry in the bath.

  • Jimmy Fury

    But the Tori album sounds interesting!

    as long as it doesn’t have the same effect.

  • Shannon

    I listened incessantly the first few days I had the album, my head tilted a little bit in incomprehension, then lost touch due to a week’s worth of industry, then picked it up again this weekend and was freshly blown away. In the second wave, I let my guard down a bit, not focusing on the lyrics, or the changes in Tori’s voice, or the additions of her daughter and niece into the mix, or the strangeness/ubiquity of the chamber orchestra. And just listened. Tori at her best creates these incredible sonic spaces for every individual song, whether multi-layer, multi-track behemoths, or simple, spacious, just-her-and-a-piano with an occasional, well-spotted bout of reverb. Listening again the songs “Shattering Sea”, “Fearlessness”, “Nautical Twilight”, “Star Whisperer”, and “Edge of the Moon”, literally opened up to me like a Georgia O’Keeffe bud. The rock hooks, though orchestral, abound in “Shattering” and “Edge”, and the howling in “Nautical” and rampant overlays in the 2nd half of “Edge” redefines quintessential Tori. I was also finally able to accept the guest vocalsizers “Snowblind” and “Night of Hunters” (full disclosure: I created a reductive playlist of 10 songs in the first days of listening because as with Tori’s last three albums, it was TOO MUCH to take; after I became more familiar with my faves and listened to the whole thing again, I began to hear the cohesiveness of the larger work).

    I’ll stop waxing all crazy-Tori-fan, just to say keep processing, and I hope the album opens up someday.

    PS – Also, troll YouTube for the original classic pieces, which I did in between revelations. Stunning to hear how closely Tori hits the originals only to shatter them into her own. No surprise if you’re a fan of her covers, but if you didn’t know that these weren’t her themes, they might seem wholly original.

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