20 Years Ago: Tori Amos Offers Up ‘Boys For Pele’
By early 1996, Tori Amos had established herself as a sort of yin to the yang of grunge. Where Soundgarden had their “Jesus Christ Pose,” Amos had “Crucify.” Her song “God” from 1994’s Under the Pink in the hands of Pearl Jam would have been canonical grunge alongside “Jeremy.” This all might sound like a stretch, but listening to Amos cover Pearl Jam’s “Black” provides an inkling of how close what she was doing in the early ’90s fit with the confessional songwriting coming out of Seattle during that period.
With her third album, 1996’s Boys For Pele, Amos went deeper; so deep, in fact, that the lyrics proved too dense for many critics. Rolling Stone referred to the album’s lyrics as “enigmatic artifice and fanciful metaphors,” while the Los Angeles Times referenced ” the utter indecipherability of Amos’ lyrics.” The lyrics to “Beauty Queen/Horses,” the album’s opening track, exemplify what critics were barking about: “She’s a beauty queen / my sweet bean bag in the street / take it down out to the laundry scene / don’t know why she’s in my hand .”
However, what those early reviewers overlooked is that often the most opaque lyrics are the most personal. Sometimes these moments reveal an artist working close to the bone, like a diary keeper writing in secret code in the event that his or her journal is uncovered by prying eyes. For example, the Beatles‘ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” is about neither wood nor birds.
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So it is with Boys for Pele. While working on Under the Pink, Amos split from her longtime boyfriend and producer Eric Rosse. That breakup led Amos to an intensely personal cycle of songs not only about Rosse, but other men with whom she’d been involved. “I was in Hawaii during the Under the Pink tour and it was when my personal life had just become completely not good. And after my separation, I fled there,” she told radio station WNEW back in ’96. “And I just felt this force from this fire from the volcano. And I’ve tried to get it through men all my life. Through men or through fame or through something. But a lot of times, through men.”
Enter Pele, the fire goddess whose volcanoes created the Hawaiian Islands. Amos was going to sacrifice the boys in her life to Pele, figuratively speaking, and claim her life (her “fire”) as her own again. For starters, she chose to produce the album herself, clearing her proverbial plate of the “glue stuck to [her] shoes” of Rosse and, presumably, any man exerting influence on her musical life.
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Not all of the album’s songs are impenetrable. Lead single “Caught a Lite Sneeze” is quite accessible both musically and literally: it was the first major label single ever made available for free as a download. Nor were all the songs on Boys for Pele aimed solely at the former loves of Amos’ life. She ponders the patriarchal role of men in religion throughout tracks like “Muhammad My Friend” (“It’s time to tell the world / we both know it was a girl back in Bethlehem”). Also in the mix are prostitution (“Blood Roses“), murder (“Marianne“) and betrayal (“Father Lucifer”).
Lyrics aside, the album documents some of Amos’ most beautiful melodies and performances. The majority of the album was recorded in an Irish church – a somewhat symbolic location for the daughter of a minister, but mostly practical: it provided the cavernous acoustics she was looking for. Other portions were recorded at a studio in New Orleans. “I went to Louisiana, back to the south and the old-world church, to the place that deemed wrong Mary Magdalene and the shadow-sorcerer side in the Bible,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “I went to reclaim that hidden womanhood, because you can’t have grace without the whores.”
The overall effect is divisive. Men expecting a pretty little girl cooing love ballads to them not only had to contend with the implication of being fed to a live volcano, but were also greeted with a cover featuring a rifle-wielding Amos, her only companions a dead rooster and a snake underfoot. On the other hand, many women (and open-minded guys, of course) found within the album a welcome message of empowerment. Boys for Pele debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, was nominated for a “Best Alternative Album” Grammy and sold more than a million copies in the U.S. alone.