Tori Amos’ latest album is high-concept, a little obtuse, and often very, very pretty. At this point, you’d do well to note the date, as that sentence could have been written about every Tori Amos album that’s ever been made.

It’s interesting, though, to follow the trajectory of Tori’s career. Early records like Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink are justly heralded as classics – even as, looking back on them, they’re hardly emblematic of the artist Tori would turn into. They’re albums full of regret and anger; there’s a level of bitterness and easily-tapped emotion there that the Tori Amos of the 2000s would find rather elusive. Post-Scarlet’s Walk – arguably Ms. Amos’ last excellent album – Tori seemed to retreat further into obtuse and conceptual song cycles, focusing more on the cycle than the songs. Anyone would be well within their rights to, with the specters of American Doll Posse and The Beekeeper lurking in their minds, approach Tori’s latest, Night of Hunters, with a heaping spoonful of old-fashioned trepidation. 

Which, yeah, let’s face it: it’s bonkers. With Night of Hunters, Tori has fashioned a cycle of tunes based on classical compositions, that seem to tell of being led by a shape-shifting fox through the desolate wasteland of a ruined relationship, and her daughter shows up to voice the fox from time to time – so, conceptually, Tori keeps flirting with the edge of sanity, and that’s nothing new. What is new, at least in the past ten years of Tori Amos songcraft, is the fact that Night of Hunters, if largely inaccessible musically and emotionally, sounds pretty excellent.

Here, Tori’s got ample opportunity to explore one of her wackier flights of fancy – she gets to indulge and exploit her classical training on wax, all while writing a series of whimsical fairy tales. It’s unapologetically wackadoo, but it’s also often quite pretty, even as every lyric pretty much uniformly lands with a thud (“you’ve got me waxing and waning”, employed as a refrain; multiple references to “marmalade skies”): stormy opener “Shattering Sea” churns with Kronos Quartet-like drama, “Fearlessness” threatens to be Tori’s most ethereal and stirring slow-burner since Scarlet‘s wrenching “Gold Dust”, and “Your Ghost” is plaintive, touching, wintry, and lovely. Even “Cactus Practice”, with its phenomenally retarded title and grade-school lyricism, is interesting, because it functions as a full-scale duet between Amos and daughter Natashya Hawley, and because the dueling rise-and-fall of mother and daughter lends the song some peculiarly pretty melodic peaks.

Night of Hunters offers nothing, mind you, for the casual listener. Either Tori Amos diehards or classical fanatics will jive to this, and let’s face it, that’s not the tastemaker demographic these days; Tori is still making emotionally elusive, defiantly peculiar, artsy-chick music that defies the mainstream at every turn. But Night of Hunters sees fit to, finally, provide a modicum of inspired melodic sense and songwriting verve to the proceedings; it’s a small victory, but a step in the right direction for an artist that has simply sunken into the oppressive bog of mom-rock over the past few years. Night of Hunters may be background music, and it may be a little bit pretentious. But at least it forges a musical identity of its own, and at least it has the chops to – sorta – deliver on its crazy-baked premise. If nothing else, it’s worth it to hear Tori’s voice and nimble piano fingers really attacking compositions once again; there’s also some really interesting string work, says the reviewer who doesn’t know the faintest thing about what makes stringed compositions interesting. No matter; Tori sounds like she’s enjoying her wacky self here, and the result is an album that’s sophisticated and adorable in equal measure.

At the very least, it sounds like a pretty potent soundtrack for quiet winter’s eves.

Grade: B

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