Happy 20th Anniversary to Tori Amos’ To Venus And Back—comprised of her fifth studio album Venus: Orbiting and first official live album Venus Live: Still Orbiting—originally released September 20, 1999.
If there has ever been an artist who embodies the promise and ultimately, the payoff of the old adage “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” it’s one Myra Ellen Amos. Now 35 years into her prolific recording and performing career, the singer-songwriter and classically trained pianist more affectionately and iconically known as Tori Amos scrapped her first foray into professional recording, with synthpop band Y Kant Tori Read, whose eponymous 1988 debut LP failed to resonate critically and commercially.
In the wake of the group’s disbanding, Amos recalibrated and embarked upon her solo career, formally reintroducing herself in early January of 1992 with her acclaimed debut album Little Earthquakes. With a truly distinctive voice, leftfield lyricism, and stunning piano work, Amos’ sparse yet powerful songs quickly resonated with a listeners starved for an, er, alternative to the long-haired, male-dominated grunge and alternative rock acts that had risen to prominence in the early part of the decade.
A creatively fertile and commercially fruitful sequence of albums (1994’s Under The Pink, 1996’s Boys For Pele, and 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel) followed Little Earthquakes’ breakout success, positioning Amos as a musical force to be reckoned with and revered. As the decade progressed, Amos would move beyond, but never abandon, her original piano-driven pedigree. Each successive album found her embracing a more adventurous spirit with respect to diversifying the instrumentation that coalesced to form the finished set of songs in question, while increasingly juxtaposing her trusted ebony and ivory with more prominent electronic orchestration. In revisiting From The Choirgirl Hotel for its 20th anniversary last year, Albumism’s Quentin Harrison opined that her fourth studio album represents “an affirmation of Tori Amos not just as an excellent singer, writer or musician, but as a musical elemental in constant motion.”
This motion would continue unabated upon the arrival of Amos’ fifth LP To Venus And Back, a fitting and fetching end to a hyper-productive decade, though she has likened her inaugural period of solo recording to an arc, rather than a linear progression. “I like the shape of (the arc) better," she explained to Alternative Press in October 1999.
Originally envisioned as a collection of B-sides, Amos quickly recognized that she possessed enough new material to comprise a full-fledged studio album. Ultimately packaged as a double-album and a generous gift to her loyal legion of devotees, To Venus And Back’s first disc is an 11-track studio album adorned with the title Venus: Orbiting, accompanied by her first official live set, the 13-song Venus Live: Still Orbiting that fills out the second disc. At 24 tracks strong in total—with a mix of new and old to satisfy Amos fans of all stripes—To Venus And Back ranks among Amos’ most immersive and rewarding listens to date.
The dynamism of the Venus theme would seem an appropriate choice for a Tori Amos album, considering its symbolic connection to femininity, beauty, love, shadow-casting, and the duality of the morning and evening (and by extension, light and dark) dichotomy. Not to mention that Venus spins on its axis in the opposite direction of all other planets except Uranus—which would align well with Amos’ non-conformist disposition when it comes to adhering to musical convention.
But the album’s title seems to have been inspired by a casual conversation that Amos had with her friends, an anecdote that she recalled to Alternative Press, explaining, “I've been around the world seven times and I'm always trying to go behind the heart, to that place where the unconscious lives. I don't think it lives in the brain; I think it is behind the heart. And one of the women said to me, ‘Could you see yourself like a little astronaut? If you could, would you go to Mars?’ And I said, ‘Jesus Christ! Oh, no. Not me and Mars. Even though the studio is called Martian. That's all too male for me.’ And the other woman said, ‘You'd go to Venus, wouldn't you?’ And I just looked up and said, ‘That's it! To Venus And Back!’ I can literally see Venus circling around her heart, seeing different perspectives.”
Speaking of different perspectives, the lyrical content of the eleven songs that form Venus: Orbiting—as with the vast majority of Amos’ compositions—are ripe for various interpretations and often require repeated listening to grasp. Ushered in with a foreboding piano intro, the album-opening lead single “Bliss” finds Amos grappling with the power exerted by others (presumably, Amos’ minister father, for one) and the need to assert your own identity independent of their expectations. “Wonder if I will wander out / Test my tether to / See if I’m still free / From you,” she contemplates, later continuing, “Lately, I’m into circuitry / What it means to be / Made of you but not enough for you.”
Three other tracks followed “Bliss” as officially sanctioned singles, beginning with the second single “1000 Oceans.” Partly inspired by the loss of her father-in-law and the love for her husband, the album-concluding ballad ranks among Amos’ most lyrically straightforward and radio-friendly fare of her recording career. “I didn't know that passion could spread to friendship, to a marriage,” Amos explained in reference to the song during a 1999 Mojo interview. “To know that you feel that for somebody—you know that the bodysnatchers haven't taken all of you yet.”
Released a few weeks after To Venus And Back’s arrival, the harpsichord driven third single “Glory Of The ‘80s” finds Amos waxing wistfully nostalgic about her pre-fame period spent in the City of Angels, as best captured in the third verse: “Silicone party barbies to the left / And Joan of Arcs to the right / No one feeling insecure we were / All gorge and famous in our last lives / In the glories of the '80s you said / ‘The end is nothing to fear’ / I said, ‘Blow the end now baby / Who do I gotta shag to get outta here?’" A staple of Amos’ live setlists to this day, the standout fourth and final single “Concertina” unfurls as a suspenseful examination of irresolution and not feeling comfortable in your own skin.
Memorable moments abound among the non-single album tracks, beginning with the all-too-brief “Josephine,” which references Napoleon and his first wife, the empress Josephine, conjuring evocative imagery of the distance (literally and figuratively) between them (“Not tonight, Josephine / In an army’s strength therein lies the denouement / From here you’re haunting me / By the Seine, so beautiful / Only not to be of use / Impossible.”). The penultimate track, the piano-dominated “Spring Haze”—more than any other song on offer here—would have been right at home amongst the fare found on Little Earthquakes, Under The Pink or Boys For Pele.
Two songs exemplify Amos’s adventurous sonic transition, beginning with “Juárez.” A dark, industrial-electro dirge, “Juárez” was inspired by “the abduction and supposedly the rapes, but finally the murders, of many women in Juárez [Mexico] in the last 10 years,” according to Amos in a 1999 Pulse interview. One of the more intriguing songs and overlooked gems on the album, the shapeshifting, expansive eight-minute-plus “Dātura” warrants repeated listens to detect all of its many sonic nuances and textures.
Culled from the Plugged tour supporting From The Choirgirl Hotel, Venus Live: Still Orbiting spans compositions from each of her previous studio albums plus a handful of beloved B-sides. Listened to as a whole, the thirteen performances reinforce that while Amos’ studio work is consistently superb, her live shows are where one can fully experience and indulge in the magic and magnetism of her songs in all of their idiosyncratic, inspired glory.
Though many of the performances (including highlights “Precious Things,” “Cornflake Girl,” and “Cooling”) collected here retain the same core structure as heard on their respective parent albums or original singles, the true standout emerges when Amos reimagines “The Waitress.” Breathing new life into the Under The Pink track by way of an extended atmospheric intro and multi-layered arrangement, this haunting rendition sounds light years removed from the original. It’s an enveloping listen, with Amos’ lyrics assuming an even more subversive, sinister tone, as she sings, “I want to kill this waitress, I do know / There’re too many stars and not enough sky / I can't believe there's violence in my mind.”
From her breakthrough Little Earthquakes in 1992 to her most recent stunner Native Invader in 2017, Tori Amos has delivered 15 studio albums in 25 years, eliminating any doubt as to her rightful place among the most prolific singer-songwriters active today. And with such a wealth and diversity of material to explore across her oeuvre, it can be difficult to embrace just one of her albums as one’s favorite. Ask any fan what his or her favorite album is and you’ll invariably receive a multitude of different answers. It’s a damn near impossible task to select just one, but for me, To Venus And Back (1999) is paramount today, at least until I change my mind tomorrow.