Mother Revolution: Tori Amos’ “The Beekeeper” Turns 10

Outtake from The Beekeeper photo sessions

Outtake from The Beekeeper photo sessions

It was very conscious with Scarlet’s Walk and The Beekeeper that I wanted to embody the Mother Maiden and core essences within the being―because I find a lot of women, especially in this time of the right wing, don’t know how to be spiritual and sexual.

Either they’re puritanical, or their tits are hanging out all the time―that’s been a real bee in my bonnet, the program that [tells women] to be sexual. To counter that, you have to be nasty. I grenade that idea right out of the water! One side of yourself might be that vulgar tart, and I’ll hang out with her. I don’t mind a dirty girl. But what I find tragic is when we, as women, become not the subject of our own story, but someone else’s object.

That, to me, is playing into this role that women have held in Christianity for a long, long time. I refuse to be victimized by Christianity’s misrepresentation of our great mothers. I want to be an integrated woman.

Pulled from a 2006 Rolling Stone interview, Amos’ quote summarized a brief, albeit exciting chapter in her discography. Known for making the piano as intense a rock-and-roll instrument as the guitar, Amos’ approach had made her one of the leading talents in popular music. However, Amos was not going to retain her position as a risk-taker confined to the genre grip of alternative music expectationsfrom fans or critics.

The Beekeeper (Epic, 2005)Amos’ eighth recordwas received as a concession, or surrender, for broader pop acceptance. Was Amos, a newly minted wife and mother at this point, unable to maintain the fire that sparked her 1990s releases?

Mothers and wives can’t be rock-and-rollers; they surely that can’t be sex symbols! Though many female performers, genres aside, had shown this as false, the thought didn’t die. It went to the root of Amos’ argument of how women were (and are) viewed in society, subject to the heavy gaze of male scrutiny.

As ever, Amos readied herself to challenge that thinking with The Beekeeper. The cerebral, sexy sides it offered, like a foreign fruit, met apprehension. Those that indulged tasted Amos at her richest peak of flavor.

The History

Amos had reached her (first) creative apogee with From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic, 1998). That combustible mingling of her piano pop and electronica had been a coup. Unfortunately, label politics began suffocating Amos and she wandered through the end of her contractual obligations to Atlantic Records with To Venus and Back (1999) and Strange Little Girls (2001). Released from that career abyss, Amos ventured to greener pastures at Epic Records.

Tori Amos, circa 2005

Tori Amos, circa 2005

Though the label later turned into another trap for Amos, she initiated her tenure there smoothly. Scarlet’s Walk (2002) immediately followed her signing to Epic and ushered in the second Tori Amos renaissance.

Akin to the ambitious sprawl of predecessor Joni Mitchell’s mid-70s recordings, Scarlet’s Walk was a rebirth. The experimentation with jazz music was unmistakable; songs such as “A Sorta Fairytale,” “Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas” and “Your Cloud” bore a light grooviness.

Amos calmly tuned Scarlet’s follow-up out of its autumn chamber pop and into something equatorialand continually rhythmic.

The Record

Theme continued to be the nexus of Amos’ recordings. The Beekeeper tackled the systemic condition of gender role identification of women through the patriarchal eyes of Christianity. It was the religiousand subsequently culturalidea that women were only allowed to inhabit two spaces: “the mother” or “the whore”. In her own words, Amos sought to “marry the Mary’s” that influenced women throughout historyMary, Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene.

Additional analysis included Amos grouping the songs in various “gardens” according to lyrics; parallels also fell between that and the relationship of the bee, its hive and their beekeeper.

Despite Amos’ labyrinthine narrative, the songwriting of the LP was acute. Romance, betrayal, mortality and how women experienced these things and were empowered by them took precedence. Amos had crafted another record similar in shape to Scarlet’s Walk that forsook the overly cryptic approach common in her lyrics post-Boys for Pele (Atlantic, 1996).

While Amos was married and mothering her (then) young daughter, she still had much to say. America at the dawn of the 2000s was just trekking into the Iraq War; the conservatism that held the country in its sway was pervasive too.

"Sweet the Sting" single cover

“Sweet the Sting” single cover

With a quiet, insurrectionary stance, the pianist / vocalist addressed the political climate with “Barons of Surburbia,” “General Joy” and “Mother Revolution”.

The subject matter of the mentioned trio of songs couldn’t obscure their musical sexiness; part of that was owed to the contributions of Matt Chamberlain  (drums) and Jon Evans (bass). Both men had played with Amos on her albums and tours for a few years. The three artists laid down her curviest tunes with “Sweet the Sting,” “Witness” and “Hoochie Woman”all those works had background vocals courtesy of the London Gospel Community Choir.

Amos known for keeping her lyrical eye on others turned it on herself to furnish revealatory material. Whether recalling the passing her of brother (“Toast”), her maternal joy (“Ribbons Undone”) or passing the torch from mother to daughter (“The Beekeeper”), Amos unguarded mesmerized.

Her pen remained sharp even when the topics were soft. Love and trust were eloquently framed on the album opener “Parasol”a career highlight“Jamaica Inn” and “Sleeps With Butterflies”. The latter song could be called a “general love song,” but was artfully arranged with harmonies that gave it a “Tori twist”.

Amos’ sense of humor, often not seen enough in her music, grinned through on songs like “The Power of Orange Knickers” (with Damien Rice) and “Ireland”. They made for a refreshing listening journey.

The album clocked in at 19 tracks; length became sort of a sonic stumbling block for Amos by now. Interestingly, The Beekeeper would be the second album, after To Venus and Back, to not have b-sides readily available. But, three bonus cuts from The Beekeeper sessions did emerge: “Garlands” (on the limited DVD edition of the LP), “Dolphin Song” and “Not David Bowie” (on Piano: A Collection / Rhino, 2006).

Bright in its playful exploration of pop and jazz, The Beekeeper was friendlier than Scarlet’s Walk. As a producer, Tori Amos should have been proud of the record’s amity, even if it would be misconstrued.

The Impact

“Sleeps With Butterflies” was the first selection to introduce Amos’ new album to the public. The song was issued as a “promotional single” and thusly not available to fans physically. “Sleeps With Butterflies” hit American airwaves on 1/10/05; digital availability to fans came on 1/12/05.

The single found favor on the now defunct-U.S. Radios & Records AAA chart (#2); founded in 1973, the station/magazine allowed quirkier pop, alternative and rock music to reach audiences. It met its demise via absorption into VNU Media in 2006, a parent company of Billboard. Otherwise, “Sleeps With Butterflies,” Amos’ most commercially accessible single, created no ripples on any other major American or international chart.

Amos in the gardens of The Beekeeper

Amos in the gardens of The Beekeeper

The Beekeeper released in the global markets on 2/21/05 with the United States following on 2/22/05.

The album debuted strong across the world: U.S. Billboard 200 #5, U.K. #24, Canada #16, Germany #8, Norway, #6, ARIA #8. Released in conjunction with the LP was Piece By Piece; the book was written by Amos and renowned writer / feminist, Ann Powers. In the book, Amos discussed her personal life, and career, leading up to The Beekeeper

In its U.S. run overall, the album moved 295,000 copies; Amos’ sales had entered a slide and some saw The Beekeeper’s figures as impoverished after the chart restoration of Scarlet’s Walk.

The album and book met fair critical reception; Jon Pareles of The New York Times remarked favorably of the long player:

Ms. Amos will never be a conventional songwriter. She established herself in the 1990s with musically intricate but startlingly blunt songs about a young woman’s desires and traumas, gaining fans who have stayed with her as she moved from confession to character studies, from storytelling to abstraction. She still has a lot on her mind: lust, faith, motherhood, inconstancy, war, restlessness, death. And she has enough ambition to swirl them together in songs that spin dreamlike images and take musical detours at whim.

The Beekeeper is a generous, even overstuffed album, 19 songs and 79 minutes long, with an elaborate scheme involving six “gardens” of songs inspired by the six-sided cells of a honeycomb. (Ms. Amos has no fear of preciousness.) The lyrics are still collages of impressions, though usually with enough clues to piece them together. But The Beekeeper is also her most down-to-earth album in years, because Ms. Amos has decided she doesn’t have to pack every impulse into every song. Sometimes, now, a simple melody and a steady groove are enough.

However, not everyone was convinced of the pop sensitivity surrounding The Beekeeper. Mike Barthel of The Village Voice aligned his allegiance firmly with inaugural trilogy of Amos’ discography:

The Beekeeper is Tori-by-numbers, which isn’t necessarily bad—“Barons of Suburbia” whips the riff from “Precious Things” into the kind of ecstatic coda “Precious” itself builds to in concert. But mainly there’s either promising melodies (the “Crucify”-aping “Parasol”) ruined by cringe-y lyrics, or decent lyrical ideas executed like a Yoplait commercial. (“This is sooo good.” “Pirates good!” Cue bongos.)

If there’s a defining moment, it’s the coda of “Witness.” Backed by a gospel choir (!), you repeat the line “thought I had a witness,” but where it should be accusatory, the straight-from-the-Tori Amos-magnetic-poetry-set word boy dribbles from your mouth like half-chewed crumb cake over the lips of an Alzheimer’s patient. Also, one song has mandolins and bongos. Holy shit.

“Sleeps With Butterflies”

Directed By: Laurent Briet

Amos embarked on the corresponding live show for The Beekeeper, The Original Sinsuality Tour, on 4/1/05 in Clearwater, Florida. The show traveled across the world to return to American shores (Los Angeles) on 9/17/05. While thrilling audiences on the road, two more promotional singles were lifted from The Beekeeper: “Sweet the Sting” and “Cars and Guitars”. The selections made minimal-to-no impact on any charts.

In the decade since its appearance, The Beekeeper stands divisive among fans and critics. The Beekeeper let Amos balance contentment with confrontation, looping back around to refute the original issue that women couldn’t occupy multiple spaces at once. Mothers and wives could rock, could roll, could love, be sexy and smart. Tori Amos had “married the Mary’s,” and then some.

Ranking: Semi-Classic

[Editor’s Note: The Beekeeper is readily in print, digitally and physically. For current information on Tori Amos, visit her official website.-QH]

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1 Comment

Filed under Alternative, Pop

One response to “Mother Revolution: Tori Amos’ “The Beekeeper” Turns 10

  1. Hey Q trying to catch up on your website! Great piece here. Not sure if I ever showed you this one: “The Beekeeper and My Mid 30s”
    http://www.jeremygloff.com/index.html/1807-2/

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