Tori Amos, Night of Hunters, released 2011 by Deutsche Grammophon
1) Shattering Sea
3) Battle of Trees
5) Cactus Practice
6) Star Whisperer
7) Job’s Coffin
8) Nautical Twilight
9) Your Ghost
10) Edge of the Moon
11) The Chase
12) Night of Hunters
13) Seven Sisters
Night of Hunters is, in a word, maddening.
Commissioned by Deutsche Grammophon, as prestigious a classical music label as there is, Night of Hunters is a reworking of various pieces of classical music into chamber songs by Tori Amos. It’s a heroic effort by both DG and Amos to keep classical music relevant by transforming it into something new, and to her credit, Amos’s songs are clearly grounded in tradition without sounding slavishly derivative or unoriginal.
The highlights of this album are the utterly gorgeous arrangements by John Philip Shenale, a longtime collaborator of Amos’s. Scored for string quartet, winds, and piano, his arrangements are rich, lush, and consistently imaginative, fleshing out the original pieces perfectly, in a way that never seems like an imposition.
Unfortunately, Shenale’s yeoman work is often obscured by Amos’s vocals, which I find incredibly problematic and disappointing in all kinds of ways. First of all, it seems mixed just a bit too loud, overwhelming the ensemble supporting her (that’s often doing more interesting things). Secondly, Amos’s voice and singing style are too mannered and distinctive to blend well with classical instruments. Thirdly, she sometimes chooses source material whose melodies are not good for singing.
And fourthly, there are her lyrics.
Fans of Tori Amos have to be willing to put up with a certain amount of self-indulgence in her lyrics, and for a while Amos’s talent, creativity, and incredible emotional power made it worth it. But after her fourth album, it seemed like her words got so obscure that the only person to whom they could have any real meaning was herself.
I think it’s a useful thing to contrast her with Bon Iver, whose lyrics are similarly word-salady but don’t irritate me in the same way…and I think it’s because they don’t seem to intend meaning. To my ear, Bon Iver’s lyrics are intended to be impressionistic, to support and enhance the music and mood, to allow his voice to be another instrument. In contrast, I believe Amos’s lyrics are intended to be expressionistic, to convey a specific meaning, and to be supported by the music; and so the fact that she deliberately makes that meaning opaque is incredibly frustrating.
And so it is with her lyrics for Night of Hunters, which supposedly tell a story that is painfully pretentious and precious. Apparently there’s a purely instrumental version available, which is likely the ideal way to experience the album.
There is more that’s worthwhile on this album than Shenale’s arrangements. Though her appearance on the album certainly has the air of nepotism, Natasha Hawley – Amos’s daughter – is a talented performer, and I really like her voice, which sounds both innocent and weary; and I would probably like the album much more if she had done most of the singing. And I do enjoy “Carry” and the middle section of “Star Whisperer” without reservation.
But overall Night of Hunters seems like a wasted opportunity: nearly every song has something luscious about it and something grating about it. It’s tragic, really: it’s Tori Amos’s star power and ambition that made an unusual and valiant project like this possible, and it’s her excess that keeps it from greatness.