23 Years Later, Little Earthquakes Is Still a Knockout


This April, Tori Amos—patron saint of ’90s female self-actualization—is reissuing Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, her debut and sophomore albums. Both albums will come with a double of B-sides, live versions, and rarities; there are 32 new tracks in all, including the gutsy, witchy deep cut “Take to the Sky,” re-released yesterday:

“Take to the Sky” was a B-side on the “Winter” single release, and it’s got all those Tori signatures: earnest call-and-response piano, her voice in layers of octaves, a verse that sounds like it’s thinking, a slowly rising pre-chorus, a hammer of a chorus, the twirls and cries in between. And it’s forceful in a way that her work hasn’t been for a long time—in a way that made me go back to Little Earthquakes and stay there for four days straight.

When she started writing songs for this album, Tori was newly shot of her short-lived synth-pop band Y Kant Tori Read, whose name referred to her reputation at the Peabody Institute, a music conservatory at Johns Hopkins—to which she was the youngest person ever admitted, at age five, and then asked to leave at age 11 because of her predilection for rock as well as her refusal to read sheet music. (Y Kant Tori Read put out one album, largely unsupported by Atlantic Records, and at Tori’s request, has never re-released the material. Additionally, Tori—and I know it’s unprofessional to write it like this, but I can’t call my childhood best friend “Amos,” can I?—wasn’t Tori while she was at the Peabody. Her real first name is Myra, and she performed under her middle name, Ellen, until a boyfriend compared her to a Torrey pine, which is the rarest species of pine in America.)

After Y Kant Tori Read folded, Atlantic didn’t like the first batch of songs that Tori brought to them for her solo debut (which included “Crucify,” “Silent All These Years,” and “Winter”) and they threw her back in the studio with her boyfriend to record a second group, including “Precious Things” and the eventual title track. They sent her to ever-more-discerning London, which is where the album first charted, and from there, she became Tori Amos, tortured ’90s fairy obsessed with sex and Jesus and childhood, the weirdest girl in your college theater group; the alt-rocker using a piano as primary percussion, spread-eagled dry-humping with each hand splashing on an opposite set of keys.

And despite that very particular, earnest specificity (and the many moments where her theatricality borders on cheese; when we were both helplessly listening to this album on repeat yesterday, Erin Gloria Ryan described it as “aural menstruation”) I still feel very strongly that, 23 years after it came out, I could hear Little Earthquakes as a new release and would be calling it album of 2015 by the time Tori wails the high “drive another nail in” on “Crucify,” a debut album opener for the ages. Her writing is the hardest and the most vulnerable, her style slipping easily from stylized pop (I’ve been looking for a savior in these dirty streets/Looking for a savior beneath these dirty sheets) to raw, minimal allusion (Me/ and a gun/ and a man/ on my back/ But I haven’t seen Barbados/ So I must get out of this); her voice has about 20 different textures within the same tense warble; her instinct for fullness in arrangement—within the songs themselves and also the progression within the album—is generous, taut, and correct.

And those songs! Little Earthquake is stacked as fuck. Every time I listen to “Silent All These Years” I still feel like it’s the best song I’ve ever heard. The way that the pre-chorus—the careless, gathering circle of the “what if I’m a mermaid” melody at the base of the steadily ascending strings—suddenly drops out for the title line, then starts raining that pure, gold, easy fire:

Eeee!! I was in elementary school the first time I heard this, and I remember kind of prostrating myself on the carpet and listening to that loop over and over again until I could feel certain that it was real. One of the few things that’s stayed constant in my musical taste since I was a kid is that I still have a thing for music that is emotionally ambiguous in an almost violent way—or, more exactly, music that’s ecstatically sad: see Caribou, Ricky Eat Acid, How to Dress Well, San Fermin, Jessie Ware, remixes like this. “Silent All These Years” was a strong early education in the assertions that these songs can articulate better than text: it showed me that I didn’t have to feel any particular way or another—and that confusion can be very clear-sighted, and that a big part of forcefulness was control. Watch the way Tori holds her phrases here in this live version, not throwing her time signature off-kilter but rather, just stopping time:

On the album, “Silent All These Years” is followed by “Precious Things.” Both of these songs have lyrics that are unapologetically childish in a way that grown women often need to be after a long time being required to pretend otherwise, and the phrases slip between being obvious:

I got something to say, you know but/ Nothing comes/ Yes I know what you think of me, you never shut up

And adolescent:

I wanna smash the faces of those beautiful boys/ those Christian boys/ So you can make me come/ That doesn’t make you Jesus

And riotous—the raring rhythmic violence of this part:

With their nine-inch-nails/ and little fascist panties/ tucked inside the heart of every nice girl

And startlingly, plainly great:

He said you’re really an ugly girl/ But I like the way you play/ And I died/ But I thanked him/ Can you believe that?

“Precious Things” is exactly that wonderful Tori Amos style where the instrumentation just cascades wildly all over the scale while her vocal melody gathers its strength, low and stalking like it’s just spotted prey. And remember the part where she breathes, and the whip cracks?

Tori—particularly live—radiated the type of sexual disclosure that tends to be embarrassing unless under the terms of a person who’s very good at what they do. Female artists who can command this type of rawness are still deified, and it’s the reason we—girls like me—deified Tori. She was always less exciting on more straightforward ballads, as in “China,” the track that follows “Precious Things” and hangs on a legitimately embarrassing Great Wall metaphor. But, even with those, there’s so much material to hang an interpretation on, to spin. This version of “1000 Oceans” by the PS22 chorus is, very honestly, the only thing that reliably makes me cry:

Tori, famously, was also tremendously good at covers—check this version of “Whole Lotta Love,” which is Jane Marie’s favorite—and the reissue includes her doing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which was a B-side on the “Crucify” single (and one of the first MP3s I spent 17 hours downloading on dial-up Napster). In her iteration, Nirvana’s monolithically perfect vibe breaks open into a pieces—an incantatory come-on, an elegy, a weirdo’s panicked shriek.

Little Earthquakes closes with an insane one-two punch. First there’s the acapella “Me and a Gun,” about a rape at knifepoint she experienced at 21, and talked about in detail only once, to an Irish music magazine:

And I was singing hymns, as I say in the song, because he told me to. I sang to stay alive. Yet I survived that torture, which left me urinating all over myself and left me paralysed for years. That’s what that night was all about, mutilation, more than violation through sex.
I really do feel as though I was psychologically mutilated that night and that now I’m trying to put the pieces back together again. Through love, not hatred. And through my music. My strength has been to open again, to life, and my victory is the fact that, despite it all, I kept alive my vulnerability.

Then the album ends with its title song, Kate Bush harmonies at a slow march pace. Little earthquakes, doesn’t take much to rip us into pieces. In spite of those words, the song snarls gothily electric at the end—she’s yelling, and she can only hear herself.

That’s Little Earthquakes, the permission to be inconsistent and earnest; the ability to be strong in vulnerability, to muster your own bravado without being blind to your flaws and desires; the sustained practice of following your instincts rather than constantly trying to name them. 23 years after her debut album, it still seems as if Tori Amos nailed, on the first try, a space that remains not only very difficult but seems constantly to be tugged out of reach.

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