Tori Amos’s new album Native Invader has been received with a relatively great amount of appreciation and media coverage for an artist who was largely written off years ago, regarded by too many as a relic of the 1990s. Since her “it girl” status waned, after her first four albums spanning 1992 through 1998, Amos’s creative prowess has remained strong (if inconsistent), meandering through an evolution of the artist’s own terms.
Her new album Native Invader is a gift to this world—or as Rolling Stone puts it: “Few artists are as deft as Tori Amos at writing about the ways people process pain. In these times of national trauma, then, a new LP from her feels uniquely urgent.”
The message of Amos is urgent, in fact. Native Invader is almost wholly (almost—see the discussion about “Wings,” below) contrary to today’s political climate. Many people have specific associations with Amos’s music—angry, anti-religious, shocking, and so on—but one thread that runs through her career even during her fiery youthful period is empathy.
It’s interesting that so many people seem to think of Tori Amos as a sort of perpetual victim, when this is a woman who in every instance examines endless facets of herself and events great and small, and assess her own role in those events, for better and for worse.
Native Invader exemplifies Amos’s extraordinary point of view, tying together two major events that have changed her life over the past year. She takes on the current political climate in the United States not unlike the way she did in her last stellar album, the post-9/11 Scarlet’s Walk, including political partisanship, complete with alt-right lingo about “safe spaces,” and a particular eye on toward environmental devastation—an urgent political matter that gets no attention from politicians. The second life-changer for Amos is a stroke suffered by her mother, Mary, who has been trapped inside her body since January. According to Amos, her mother is almost entirely unresponsive with the exception of communicating with her eyes and attempts to sing along with certain familiar hymns and other music.
Tori Amos is misunderstood by far too many as a wacky alternative music act who has emphasized her sexuality and sexual assault to sell albums. Some have continued to hold a grudge against her since her very first album because of perceived similarities to Kate Bush. In reality, Amos is a gifted pianist and composer with a unique world view informed by conflicting Native American and Christian influences throughout her childhood. She has created her own musical language, and topically she is a confessional poet and musical essayist, a fabulist and an audodidactic scholar of myth, religion, visual arts and literature, who in all of her music communicates intimately personal information in such a way that makes it universal. Unselfconsciously, she explores underlying causes of psychological and political ills through the examination of archetypes, mythology and cosmology, and at times she invokes the power of psychedelic entheogens as a means of crossing time and space to find truth.
Following is not a short review of the album, but a close examination based on the small amount of time I’ve had to listen to it. Because this album needs heeding.
Native Invader opens with “Reindeer King,” a gorgeous sweeping ballad that sounds important. Amos has not released a single with such gravitas in many years. “Crystal core/Your mind has been divided from your soul,” Amos sings. “Numb unbearable thoughts/your inner need-fire/not lost/no way/not lost.” This opener frames the album, as “Shattering Sea” did on Amos’s stunning and unheralded classical 2011 album Night of Hunters. The song is most immediately read as a response to her mother’s devastating post-stroke condition—but it’s also an assessment of the nation as it stands today. “Reindeer King” is a song about devastation, division, a feeling of being trapped and lost—themes stereotypically associated with Amos’s music—but importantly, it’s about resilience and strength. On Night of Hunters, Amos sung that “our primroses could survive the frost/if a gentle rivulet of flame/is sustained tenderly.” In the frozen lands of “Reindeer King,” Amos has appealed—as she is wont to do—to a shamanic spirit guide to “get you back to you,” and the album that follows tracks her process of kindling that flame through empathy and understanding. Lest the chorus feel a little too self-help-trope-y to you (It did to me at first.), once you realize that this song lives in the context of Amos praying for the reunion of her mother’s mind and body, it may take on greater significance.
The next song, “Wings,” deals with being hurt and hurting others. The song seems sincere in its empathy, but as I hear it, there’s an ironic and potentially even passive-aggressive sting in its lyrics. As the song opens, Amos asks “is it too late/to make myself/a safe place?” But on the next verse, she modifies it with a bite: “I need/to make myself/a safe place/for you/to cry baby.” “Sometimes,” she sings, “big boys they need to cry.” In promoting the album, Amos has discussed the hyper-partisanship and extremist views of the alt-right and the extreme left. In this song, she quietly refers to both as she sings about needing to make safe spaces for herself and for this “big boy.” Her phrasing emphasizes the words “cry baby,” and her vocalization of the line “I could not see” is difficult not to read into at this strange time in extremist American history. Either way, “Wings” culminates in an Icarus myth in which Amos works with this unknown person to make “some wings/to help you flee/from your demanding Dark Angel/and me.” Together they fly “too/close/to our star,” and both get hurt. Both are complicit in the accident, hurting one another and themselves.
“This Broken Arrow needs heeding,” Amos sings as wah-wah guitar gives way to her haunting, resonant voice. “Rash and reckless/won’t get us/to where we want to be.” ”Broken Arrow” is a straightforwardly political song, asking whether the United States has forsaken Lady Liberty. Her answer? Not necessarily—”ancient songlines are singing to wake” her.
she may seem weak we may be battle weary still those songlines sing from our Great Lakes to our sacred Badlands over sweet prairies
The songlines in question are not songs as we know them—they are something else entirely that warrant further reading. Broken Arrow is a standout track because of its funky production and Amos’s powerfully ominous vocals—which call back to the title track of 2002’s similarly themed album and song Scarlet’s Walk. In fact, “Wampum Prayer” from that album would be a perfect intro to “Broken Arrow,” as together the two represent cause and effect.
What wouldn’t be obvious to the casual listener who receives the political message is that this song, as with all of Amos’s music, is also intensely personal. Part of her heritage is Eastern Cherokee and part is European. As we see it today, Native American and contemporary (primarily European-descended) American cultures are in great part at odds with one another. Amos is a living embodiment of a different kind of reality, one in which these cultures and their ideas come together to find common interests, to understand one another. (As she sings in “Your Cloud” from Scarlet’s Walk, “if the rain has to separate from itself/does it say ‘pick our your cloud?’”). Rather than these different aspects of humanity—of her individuality—being in conflict, one that has been hurt by the other might be the saving grace for both. Perhaps, Amos suggests in “Broken Arrow,” those ancient songlines that we tried to extinguish will save us. Perhaps that’s naive. Either way, she sings, “no I’m not letting go/I won’t be silenced or frozen out/to those who must account/in our Senate/and the House.”
“Cloud Riders” calls back directly to Amos’s Night of Hunters album, which is a regular theme throughout this album. (As a side note, I have had an unstated fantasy that Amos would repurpose Night of Hunters as a non-classical record so that more people would listen to it because it is a masterpiece of sonic storytelling and a strange tapestry of myth and philosophy. She has done exactly that with the themes on this album.) This song is a slow ride through stormy weather, but Amos assures us “we’ll be riding out this storm.”
“We may just survive/if the Militia of the Mind/arm against those climate blind,” Amos sings alongside the next generation in her world, her daughter Tash, in “Up the Creek.” The song, whose title is a nod to her Cherokee grandfather’s favorite saying, is a self-explanatory rally cry for a new generation of conscious (they’d probably say “woke”) human beings whose lives, and whose children’s lives, are will be profoundly affected by climate change—something Native Invader was spectacularly timed to illustrate it. The sound of the song is a departure from the rest of the album (and from all preceding Tori Amos sounds, which is saying something given the great span of her styles): it’s urgent, with synthesized strings propelling it along in a vaguely Middle Eastern orchestration. This is the alarm call of the album. Incredibly, within days of the album’s release, we had just seen parts of Texas subsumed by flooding, followed immediately by a category-five hurricane chased by a category-four hurricane to the East of the U.S., wildfires to the West, and a historic earthquake to our south in Mexico. Amos has been made many implicit pagan references throughout her career, but on this track Gaia is a living, breathing creature with knowledge sown in her bones. By the fifth album of Native Invader, Amos has taken us with her own song lines through many generations—her mother, her grandfather, her daughter—and then expanded, suddenly, into the lifespan of the planet. We’re all inextricably tied together. It’s a belief illustrated throughout Amos’s mature adult work with Scarlet’s Walk and Night of Hunters, two masterpieces on their own. Native Invader brings their stories together to stellar effect.
Next up is “Breakaway,” a gorgeous, quietly intimate ballad that sounds very much like the Tori Amos many of her fans have missed since the 1990s. “You feel betrayed,” she sings. “I feel played/by our so-called friends/not the friends we should have made.” “Breakaway,” like “Wings,” is a song in which everyone is hurt by everyone—betrayal abounds. It’s how many of us feel today.
“Wildwood” continues Amos’s shamanic summoning as she sings about “Ivy’s gift/which taught you can’t escape anguish/but how to live with it.” The song is sun-dappled, a summer dream of a sister to “Sweet Sangria” from Scarlet’s Walk. This is an entheogenic journey to a time before human beings had resurfaced the land, before the dis-integration of spiritualism and the Earth itself. It’s a much more ear-friendly continuation of the same theme explored through Amos’s “Battle of Trees” from the Night of Hunters album, wherein she sings “from Ivy leaves/comes an ale that can unveil/the hidden meanings/and serpents/only revealed through visions.” It has to be said, too, that many people over the years—including Amos’s most die-hard fans—have criticized her husband’s guitar playing on many of her albums. Here, it’s a perfect marriage.
In “Chocolate Song,” Amos alternates the anguish of people saying instantly regretted cruel things to one another with “satiny luscious chocolate.” It’s a strange mix, something best understood when she explains it. “I don’t hate you,” she sings twice, emphatically. “No, I need to be more like you/within the tension of your opposites/somehow the lingering sweetness/without betraying your bitterness.”
“Bang went the universe,” Amos sings, “a mighty Sun’s Dance of Death/Exploding Super Nova/one story’s end/seeds another to begin.” This propulsive song travels from topics of immigration to the creation of the universe and an Earth “not traumatized/by a cluster of hostile humans who side/with their warlords of hate.” As she sang on Night of Hunters—and this notion sums up mature, wise-woman Tori Amos’s philosophy—“we must now out-create/with the Backbone of Night/to re-humanize.” Amos has been to dark places. She has sung about them and spoken about them, and she’s sung and spoken about how going there is the best way to get out of darkness’s clutches. So fortified with these difficulties that we face, we now need to think and create our way out of the conundrum we’ve gotten ourselves into. Following this acknowledgment, Amos sings us into a psychedelic vision: “the Heavens opened/and then I heard voices.”
"Can't they see" he said to me "that we all are Molecular Machines" goals and dreams all I wanna be is the very best Machine I can be
And in the end she breaks the creation down to its base elements—literally: iodine, iron, manganese, molyndenum, selenium, silicon, tin, vanadium and zinc. “All I wanna be/Is the very best/machine I can be.” Don’t we all? It seems every authentic transcendent vision, whether achieved through meditation, prayer or psychedelics, tells us this universal truth: we all want the same things. We’re all the same. So what are we fighting for?
Instead of fighting, we could simply “Climb.” OK, maybe it’s not that simple. “All I me wants to be—” she sings, “believe.” As Amos tells us on this gorgeous, reverential song that invokes the saint who offered her veil to Jesus Christ, “only when you're whole can you forgive/but it's a long long climb.” Easier said than done, but Amos does offer instructions for how to get there: “Dream of dimensions/Then cross the veil to them.” In other words, out-create.
The jazzy ”Bats” is a sonic watercolor painting that follows invokes the knowledge of ancient water spirits with whom humanity made a deal. "The most precious thing/that we’ll fight to save,” Amos sings, “the fate of our waves/with her blue satin crashing” (the last is another line that ties directly back to Night of Hunters).
you say the bats are wise and once had prophesied what fate... if betrayed by human kind
This song may flow freely and sound soft and meandering—but when Tori Amos gets quiet, it’s time to listen closely. “Bats” is more waning, less compassionate understanding of multiple sides of an argument. She’s telling us that whether we remember it or not, someone remembers that our kind has an agreement with be good custodians of this living planet. On the next song, “Benjamin,” Amos sings about her “computer bat friend” who she describes as both a ninja and part of an army. This song, as a companion to “Bats,” rambles along softly as it delivers an unambiguous message. Following the tremendous expanse of compassion explored throughout the album, “Benjamin’s” lyrics, despite the sweet sound, are a punch in the face:
sucking hydrocarbon from the ground those pimps in Washington are selling the rape of America as they attack Juliana
[The Juliana in question appears to be the future generations of the U.S., by way of Juliana v. United States, a case filed by young people who claim that the federal government’s policies endanger the environment, and therefore the Constitutionally guaranteed rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for future generations.]
Following “Bats” and “Benjamin,” the album concludes with a sharp turn for “Mary’s Eyes.” This song’s very concept is heart rending, as the title refers to Amos’s mother’s only means of communication following her stroke. By odd coincidence, Tori Amos’s parents were seated next to me during her tour for the album Scarlet’s Walk. (Mary Amos and I agreed at the time that that may be Tori Amos’s greatest lyrical album. I think Mary would agree that Native Invader is certainly among her daughter’s best work.) I spent much of that concert watching Mary and Edison watching their daughter, absolutely captivated. I wondered how many concerts they’d witnessed throughout their daughter’s life, and I wondered how it could not be boring after a while. But Amos is a unique talent. A Tori Amos concert is not a Britney Spears concert, nor is it a Rolling Stones concert. It’s something else entirely, and Tori Amos’s parents’ eyes were locked on her throughout the night, watching with as much wonder as the rest of the audience had. The song “Mary’s Eyes” is a prayer, a stream-of-consciousness plea, by Amos for “The Death Midwife” to bring her mother back—something that seems it would indeed be a miracle by now. Amos tried this trick before, seemingly successfully, as she detailed in 2004’s “The Beekeeper,” wherein she begged a similar gatekeeper of life to “keep her alive.” “I cannot accept that she will be taken from me,” Amos sang in 2004. She seems to resign herself to being on the losing end of the bargain this time, modifying her earlier “can you bring her back to life” plea early in “Mary’s Eyes” to the final line, “can’t we just bring her delight.”
It’s an utterly personal, intimate and vulnerable closer to a bold and at times defiant album.
With Native Invader, the singular Tori Amos calls upon her extraordinary and greatly underappreciated reserve of worldly and otherworldly knowledge and her keen intuition to make sense of an increasingly surreal world. So many of us in the United States today feel that we’ve been put through the ringer over the past year. Some of us (ahem) have at times questioned what is real and what is not over the past year. Is the president of the United States really threatening nuclear war through Twitter this morning? Are those real Nazis? How do we deal with it? I have no idea. But I do know that Amos’s answer—we must out-create—is a good one, and quite possibly the best one. Maybe the only viable one.
As someone maligned early in her career as a “24-karat Froot Loop,” Amos now is the wise woman who has always respected the nature of the surreal and in fact made a study of aspects of being that aren’t obvious or that we try to will away. Here and now, she is the wise woman who can teach us through her experience and her scholarship. Native Invader, like Night of Hunters and Scarlet’s Walk, is literature, not pop music. Its power lies in close reading and listening.