Night of Hunters
Routinely prompting the wide-eyed wonder reserved by pop fans for those of their idols who have that much-coveted "classical training", Tori Amos has been beguiling her devotees for more than 20 years with her own brand of confessional songwriting and piano-pounding.
She is an artist who will send you one way or another: utter adoration or exasperated irritation, and those feelings can coexist within one album. The dark, mystical shading of her lyrics can offer a world of interpretation that continues to expand with repeated listening, and the best of her music, prickly and crystalline, has similar traits. Yet sometimes it's just so self-consciously, clunkily unhinged, psycho-babble words accompanied by spiky piano noodling, that it infuriates more than enlightens. Self-editing has not been Amos's strong point.
This album is somewhat more structured: commissioned by the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, Night of Hunters is a narrative song cycle, each song based on a work from within the classical canon of the past 400 years.
Prompted, according to her interviews, by discussions with Deutsche Grammophon's head musicologist Dr Alexander Buhr, the Schubert song cycle Winterreise acted as inspiration for a set of variations, though in fact the results bear more resemblance to the anguished, frantic song cycles of Schumann. The individual pieces on which the songs are modelled range from the somewhat obscure (a piano piece by Charles-Valentin Alkan, for example) to the obvious (Satie's Gnossienne No.1, a Mendelssohn Song Without Words, Debussy's Girl with the Flaxen Hair), but her variations are intriguing. Musical themes weave through the songs, flitting up here and there, interspersed with Stravinsky-like rhythmic keyboard-bashing and a wind octet orchestrated by Amos's regular collaborator John Philip Shenale.
The plot of this song cycle, meanwhile, is as bizarrely mythical as any Wagner opera or Impressionist ballet. The short version is that, as her relationship falls apart, a woman is taken on a fantastical journey by a shapeshifter, Annabelle (whose part is sung brilliantly by Amos's 11-year-old daughter Natashya Hawley, an extraordinarily mature talent). During this journey, from sunset to sunrise, the concepts of "hunter" and "hunted" are explored, with Amos's trademark lyrical mix of opaque symbolism and straight statement.
This is an album that takes some effort to enjoy, less because of the complexity of the classical elements than the slightly off-putting musical-theatre sound of some of the songs - there's occasionally a touch of the Andrew Lloyd Webbers. This is not such a surprise, given that Amos is also in the midst of writing a musical. It does mean, though, that the more interesting elements of the album take a while to come through.
Also off-putting for those who admire Amos's more challenging work are the elements of ethereal Celtic whimsy. It's worth taking that extra time, however: a few listens in and it becomes a genuinely interesting experiment, if not entirely satisfying. Amos fans will be delighted with this expansion of her musical vocabulary. Others may be a touch disappointed with the entry-level interpretation of the classics involved.
As Amos herself is happy to admit, she knew little of this music before embarking on the project, and it does show. But if she produces future albums with Deutsche Grammophon there could be some fascinating work in the pipeline, and an interesting addition to the classical crossover genre.