There are two ways an artist can address a crisis: by smearing the gory details on thick or blowing smoke into the air around it. The 2016 election has inspired plenty of music, from the sarcastic (Todd Rundgren’s “Tin Foil Hat”) to the obnoxious (Juliana Hatfield’s Pussycat album). But, it’s Tori Amos’ Native Invader that finds the space between, addressing trauma both personal and political while maintaining the psychic distance necessary to create an album that can withstand the passage of the election cycle.
At first listen, Native Invader feels like a collection of singles and B-sides. There’s no cohesive thread that binds it all together, so it’s easy to parcel out the sublime (“Reindeer King,” “Bats” “Climb”), the meh (“Russia” “Breakaway” “Chocolate Song”) and the maybes (“Bang” “Up The Creek”). That works to Amos’s advantage. She allows herself the room to explore a variety of styles and landscapes without ever sounding tired, repetitive or grasping at relevance. At 54, Amos sounds comfortable enough in her skin to experiment with static soundscapes, fuzz guitars and even some arcade-era sound effects.
The singles “Cloud Riders” and “Reindeer King,” are some of the more classically Tori sounding songs on the album. Age is wearing a little on her cool, fairy-like voice, but it only serves to make it more tender in contrast to the icy-cold strings on “Reindeer.” Meanwhile, “Cloud Riders” has a dry southwestern twang over Beatles-esque guitars, paying homage to the music that got her expelled from Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins.
(Similarly,“Wildwood” is so Tori that it’s nearly parody; for a second I thought she was, in fact, singing “Oil Spill,” Tabitha Johansson’s hit song from Bob’s Burgers.)
But from these singles, the album diverges into wilder territory. Her daughter Natasha Hawley joins her on “Up The Creek,” which uses sharp string fills the way Katy Perry or Lady GaGa might use drum machine beats. It’s the first upbeat song on the album, with her Bösendorfer nearing fury as she wails “We might just survive/if we form a militia of the mind.” It’s a much better political anthem than “Russia,” which, given the furious pace of the modern news cycle sounds outdated even before it’s hit the airwaves.
The intensely personal connections don’t end with “Up The Creek.” The haunting “Mary’s Eyes” joins “Me and a Gun” and “Spark” in the catalogue of Amos’ most personal songs. Written about the stroke that left her mother unable to speak, it’s an intimate and chilling reflection on aging and the way we all prepare for the inevitable loss of our parents. “Can you bring her back to life?” Amos pleads. She is praying, she is wishing, she is even calling on the Dream King himself, like a late-night phone call to best friend Neil Gaiman in a time of need and longing.
There are even shades of the oft-maligned (but recently reissued!) Y Kant Tori Read on “Wings.” Electric and minimal, it takes on toxic masculinity in a way that almost sounds like a knockoff act. Similarly, “Benjamin” is peppered with Pac-Man blips, as though it was dug out of a time capsule buried in 1994. They’re some of the weaker songs on the album, as is the showtune-y “Breakaway.”
Native Invader is not one of Tori’s sexier albums, nor is it as playful as she’s demonstrated herself capable of being. But it’s strong and unwavering in its commitment to being muse-driven and unafraid. There’s a warm melancholy throughout, like being inside on a rainy day – things may look bleak, but for a moment, there is a safe haven in sound.