Happy 20th Anniversary to Tori Amos’ third album Boys for Pele, originally released in the UK January 22, 1996 and in the US January 23, 1996.
In the interest of transparency, I have not always been a Tori Amos fan. In fact, there was a time that I was vehemently, albeit naively, dismissive of her music. You see, when my older sister brought Little Earthquakes into our home during that spring of 1992, I was an arrogant, obstinate 14 year-old boy who swore that hip-hop was the only music I needed in my life. And despite my sister’s very rational pleas for me to give Amos’ debut album a fair shot, this cooler-than-thou guy just wasn’t haven’t it. Ditto with respect to Amos’ follow-up Under the Pink, released two years later in 1994.
Regrettably, a few more years would pass before my membership in the uptight adolescent male club was revoked. Indeed, during my first year of college, I finally began to see the light. Planted in a new city, exposed to new ideas, and encountering new people right and left, I challenged myself to become more welcoming of change. My musical palette, among many other things, benefited immensely.
So when I first heard “Caught a Lite Sneeze” in the early days of 1996, I was all ears. And I loved what I heard. A few weeks after my discovery, I walked down to the Tower Records in town and returned to my dorm room on campus, with a copy of Boys for Pele in hand. Upon listening to the album a few times that day, I promptly returned to the store the following day and added Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink to my CD collection. And a new Tori Amos convert was born.
Just what was it that compelled me to relinquish my previously held aversion and embrace Amos’ music? Well, as I spent more time with her first three albums, I had a few epiphanies about their creator, revelations that would have been unthinkable for me a few years prior. First, Amos’ virtuoso piano playing is incredible and rivaled by only a select few. Second, she is one of the most iconoclastic, inventive and fearless songwriters I’ve ever heard, with lyrics that demand my (and your) rapt attention. And third, her songs are ripe with her own brave confessions and more broadly universal insights about the complexities of women’s psyches, hearts and souls. The latter proving valuable information for a young male listener like myself, who, at the time, was still trying to figure out what makes young women tick. In other words, I recognized that I could learn a helluva lot from Tori Amos.
Of the albums that comprised Amos’ early career trilogy, the unorthodoxly crafted Boys for Pele still resonates the loudest for me. Recorded in a church in rural County Wicklow, Ireland, with additional sessions in a New Orleans studio, Boys for Pele is the first of her albums produced primarily by Amos herself. Though her signature stripped-down piano arrangements are still present, her third LP is noticeably more experimental, with multi-layered instrumentation, including several harpsichord-blessed compositions. “The thing I wanted from this album was freedom,” Amos confided to Irish music magazine Hot Press shortly after the album’s release. “I wanted to do things musically that I hadn’t done before.” Her ambition paid off, as the 18-track Boys for Pele proved a more sonically expansive song suite than its precursors, offering testament to Amos’ musical vision and versatility.
Even before pressing play on the disc for the first time, the most cursory of glances at the arresting album artwork signaled that Boys for Pele was a considerably more volatile record than her previous two efforts. The portrait of strength and sensuality, an emboldened Amos casts her piercing gaze toward the listener from a wooden rocking chair, naked and muddied leg draped over one of the chair’s arms, rifle resting across her lap, with a snake coiled by her foot and a dead rooster hanging behind her. A far cry from the innocuous Little Earthquakes cover, which shows Amos knelt inside a box with a miniature blue piano at her feet.
While some have interpreted the striking visual as a nod to “Me and a Gun”—her poignant account of her first-hand experience with rape that features on Little Earthquakes—the imagery more broadly signifies her state of mind throughout the recording process. Recorded in the wake of the dissolution of her romance with producer Eric Rosse, who co-produced her first two albums, the introspective Boys for Pele finds Amos looking deep within herself, casting her emotional demons aside, and ultimately reclaiming ownership of her identity. “This is about finding my fire,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “This is about standing on my own.” She later explained to the Dallas Morning News that “As I wrote the songs for Boys for Pele, I started valuing myself through my own eyes, instead of valuing me through the eyes of others, like the press or a lover or whatever." So while the album’s creation was an emotionally demanding one for Amos, it ultimately proved a therapeutic exercise for her.
The album’s title was inspired by her trip to Hawaii, during which she learned about the legend of Pele, the Goddess of Fire and Volcanoes. According to Hawaiian mythology, the powerful Pele was prone to raging fits of fury, and known to exact her vengeance by sacrificially tossing young boys into her volcanic flames. Though the theme of Amos—and women, in general— finding and seizing her inner fire pervades the album, the only direct reference to Pele appears in “Muhammad My Friend,” by way of the line “You've never seen fire until you've seen Pele blow.”
More broadly, and expanding upon the thematic foundations of Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink, Boys for Pele is predicated upon Amos’ deconstruction of patriarchal hegemony and masculinity, specifically within relationships and religion, and her assertion of female will in the face of interpersonal and institutionalized repression. At the risk of understatement, it’s an intense and empowering record. A complex collection of songs that demands the listener’s undivided attention and patience to decipher Amos’ metaphor-heavy lyrics and less intuitive, leftfield symbolism. But it’s also one of Amos’ most rewarding efforts across her prolific discography.
Ubiquitous throughout the 70-minute affair are the ghosts of Amos’ dissolved relationship, which naturally segue into her exploration of the broader conflict between the feminine and the masculine. Surfacing just two tracks in and arguably the album’s heaviest song, “Blood Roses” explores the darker side of love and the exploitation of women in its various physical, psychological and emotional forms. On the percussive, harpsichord-drenched first single “Caught a Lite Sneeze,” Amos reflects that she “didn’t know our love was so small,” an obvious reference to the demise of her doomed relationship.
“Hey Jupiter” and “Doughnut Song” are both tender piano ballads, the former detailing the heartache of a love lost, the latter acknowledging the emptiness of a relationship and the fact that her lover has moved on. Appearing toward the end of the record, “In the Springtime of His Voodoo” and “Putting the Damage On” find Amos struggling to reconcile her profound feelings of loss and lingering affection for her former paramour.
The spiritual counterpart to “God” from Under the Pink, “Muhammad My Friend” challenges organized religion’s marginalization of women by turning the traditional male-dominated conception of God on its head, as Amos declares “It’s time to tell the world / We both know it was a girl / Back in Bethlehem.” A fictional tale of a woman caught between two worlds, “Little Amsterdam” takes on the American South’s centuries-old legacy of patriarchal domination perpetuated by racist whites.
A handful of standout songs diverge a bit from the album’s dominant themes, but they’re no less provocative. Falsely interpreted by some as an endorsement of the satanic or a veiled ode to Amos’ minister father, the lilting, lullaby-like “Father Lucifer” is actually about liberating one’s suppressed desires and embracing whatever your preferred vices may be, however taboo. During a 1996 radio interview with Modern Rock Live, Amos explained that:
Now, when I say Lucifer, I'm talking about the feelings that we hide from ourselves. Not something that's twisted and evil, like during the Inquisition when they used Christianity to torture people. That's Satanism. I had to go in this record when I was trying to find parts of myself that I had not let scream and dance and have a tear. I went to go visit Lucifer to get my talisman, which means my little magic key that took me to the places that I hadn't let myself go. That's really about having a little tango, a little dance, with Lucifer. The idea that Dark is not a scary thing if you go in there understanding there is a purity in Darkness.
Though much of the world is more familiar with the propulsive, dancefloor-filling Armand Van Helden remix of “Professional Widow,” its original incarnation featured here is noteworthy for its much-debated allusions to none other than Courtney Love. According to widespread rumors—the validity of which have yet to be proven, mind you—Love played a not-so-insignificant part in the fracturing of Amos’ friendship with Trent Reznor. Believe what you will.
When Amos initially brought the finished album, admittedly devoid of any obvious radio-friendly hits beyond “Caught a Lite Sneeze,” to the executives at Atlantic Records, they were skeptical of its commercial potential. From their perspective, Boys for Pele represented a curveball of a record, relative to the more conventional and marketable Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. But the album was certified platinum for surpassing one million in sales by August of 1996, an achievement that, as Amos explained at a show in Boulder, CO later that year, “record companies, radio had fuck-all to do with.”
Sales figures and eggs on record execs’ faces aside, Boys for Pele is unequivocally the work of a brave, vital artist who has taken thrilling risks throughout her storied 25-year career, in the spirit of preserving her creative freedom and adventurous approach to songcraft. Amos’ recorded repertoire is vast, comprised of 14 studio albums, a plethora of b-sides (some of which are among her strongest compositions), and a slew of official and bootlegged live recordings. And Boys for Pele is arguably the most powerful musical statement she has ever made.