If there is one thing that distinguishes Tori Amos from many of her fellow ‘90s-era rock stars, it is that she is still making excellent music. Her 15th studio album Native Invader—released on Decca Records on September 8—finds the classically trained pop musician presenting listeners with a deeply personal spin on troubled sociopolitical times. Fair warning for established fans: This is not an album made up of songs you can dance to, but Amos’s scalpel-sharp lyrics, political insight, and willingness to experiment musically while retaining her distinct rock sensibility makes Native Invader a rich, rewarding listen that will thrill longtime fans.
There are a lot of wonderful moments on Native Invader; opening track “Reindeer King” is pure vintage Amos; against a background of rolling piano chords and gentle, shivering strings, she spins a tale of a mythical beast providing counsel to the song’s narrator, who is witnessing a friend deal with all-encompassing grief. Slow-burning as it is, “Reindeer King” makes a fantastic headphones-only song (so you can really appreciate that string section!). The second song, “Wings,” unfortunately makes use of a drum machine and oddly placed electronica beeps—these two characteristics distracted me so much that I couldn’t focus on the lyrics or melody. Maybe “Wings” is this album’s automatic skip song for me. “Broken Arrow” is Amos’s most political song in about a decade, and it’s a solid track, despite the weird guitar noodling at the song’s start that someone thought would be a good idea.
“Up the Creek” starts out sounding like an adult contemporary track as filtered through an alt-country band—there’s a great guitar line, even if the lyrics seem a bit stilted and the drum machine is cheesy as all get-out. What saves “Up the Creek” from itself—besides the gorgeous vocals, which feature an assist from Amos’s daughter, Natasha—is Amos’s piano solo that starts around 2:25. If you can ignore YET MORE electric guitar noodling during this part of the song, it just might be one of Amos’s best piano solos.
Native Invader’s second half is its strongest, and after the utterly confounding “Chocolate Song,” this is a relief. The intense mid-tempo ballad “Bang” connects the cycle of ecological and interpersonal violence to human hubris, while “Climb” explores the dark side of religious belief and the perennial Amos theme of women’s empowerment. The meticulously crafted “Bats,” with its winding piano line and echoing vocals, is one of Amos’s best songs in years. Native Invader’s last track, “Mary’s Eyes,” wrenchingly chronicles the aftermath of a stroke that left Amos’s mother unable to speak.
Much of the press coverage of Native Invader has focused on Amos’s finding inspiration in the natural world and current politics for this new batch of songs; in an interview with Stereogum’s Michael Tedder, Amos explained that part of the impetus for Native Invader was when people in the Washington, D.C. area began to reach out to her during the 2016 election, afraid of the dark turn that the political climate had started to take. At first, this seems like a weird anecdote to share in an interview, but it is clear that Amos is doing this work with the sincerity and seriousness that it requires, not just utilizing human pain for her own musical inspiration.
Amos has—or had, at the very height of her popularity—a reputation as a bit of a kook, especially to people who were/are not fans of hers or who were/are not familiar with her music. As a longtime Amos fan, I’ve occasionally expressed my frustration with some of the interview answers she gives, but this album is not the musical equivalent of Amos rolling up to the woods—Will Ferrell-as-Robert-Goulet style—and yelping “NATURE!” at anyone who will listen. Like most working musicians who have enormous back catalogs and loyal fans, Amos has made mediocre albums before (among fans, 2005’s The Beekeeper is widely considered her worst) and various musical missteps, but as a whole, Native Invader is far from a misstep. It is less immediately mind blowing than some of her past records, and the songs here take time to grow on you. Bring headphones.
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