A retro review of Tori Amos, LITTLE EARTHQUAKES (Atlantic, 1992), originally released January 6, 1992. Twelve tracks at 57 minutes: Crucify; Girl; Silent All These Years; Precious Things; Winter; Happy Phantom; China; Leather; Mother; Tear in Your Hand; Me and a Gun; and Little Earthquakes.
Nothing quite prepared me for my first listen to LITTLE EARTHQUAKES by Tori Amos, twenty-five years ago this month (actually, twenty-five years ago tomorrow, to be exact).
Full of confessional anger and blasphemy, LITTLE EARTHQUAKES is nothing if not utterly honest. Indeed, this first album from American vocalist and pianist remains one of the most honest and earnest albums I’ve ever heard in my 49 years of life. Amos has a voice that could awake the dead who await the Last Judgment. And, if she challenged God to a debate, I don’t think it would be a pretty sight. Though, I can imagine Tori raising her fist pretty quickly at the first glimpse of the divine. I’m not quite sure what God would do.
As its worst (which is still amazingly good), LITTLE EARTHQUAKES is a little too poppy. The first song, “Crucify,” for example, is just a straight-forward pop song with some very good production values. Still, it is just another pop song, one in a billion. What makes it amazing and saves it from banality are the lyrics: “looking for a savior in these sheets.”
Track two, “Girl” is similar. Another clever pop song—with some fascinating rises and falls in the rhythm as well as in the vocals—but saved again by Amos’s gut-wrenching lyrics. “She’s been everybody’s else’s girl, maybe one day she’ll be her own.”
“I’ve got the anti-Christ in the kitchen yelling at me again,” Amos sings at the beginning of track three, “Silent All These Years.” It’s with this song that the listener realizes that Amos is doing something unusual, taking her out of the realm of early 1990’s pop and out of pure commercial pursuit. Her lyrics are just as good as on the first two songs, but she’s now using the piano as powerfully as Alex Lifeson uses a guitar. “So you’ve found a girl with really deep thoughts, well you better pray I bleed real soon.” In so many ways, “Silent All These Years” is an inverted song from a Gilbert and Sullivan musical with Amos, herself, as one really ticked-off confessor.
“Precious Things,” the fourth track, is better still. Urgent, relentless, and anxious, it creates anxiety at every level. “So I ran faster. . .” Again, what Amos does with the piano and her voice—and especially the astounding intermixing of the two—is simply mind-boggling. At this point, Amos is taking the album into realms never heard on radio before. There’s even an Elvis moment: “I say, I say. . .” But, then Amos wants to slaughter those “Christian boys” who can make her orgasm! Sheesh, I’m rather glad I can know this artist at a distance.
Things slow down considerably with the next track, “Winter.” An introspective tune about family and dependency, the first such songs that actually allows Amos to show a somewhat charitable spirit toward the world.
“Happy Phantom” is a rather whimsical tune referencing the Beatles, but sounding much more like XTC. “I’ll go chasing nuns in the yard again. . .”
Track seven is a delicate and fragile song, the opposite of the first three songs of the album. “China” is Amos revealing even more than she had in “Winter” that she is capable of poetry at the level of Paul Simon. Additionally, Matthew Seligman (Thomas Dolby) plays bass, and David Rhodes (Peter Gabriel and Talk Talk) plays guitar. The strings wash them out, but it’s still good to know they’re there, somewhere in the mix.
“Leather,” track eight, is another whimsical, confessional track. “I can scream as loud as your last one, but I can’t claim innocence.” Again, I’m very glad I only know this person at a distance. She’s genius, but she’s just so cleverly bitter, it’s just painful at times.
And, frankly, it is the next track, “Mother,” that fully demonstrates Amos’s true genius, a foreshadowing of the treasure that is her second album, the perfect UNDER THE PINK. If you buy LITTLE EARTHQUAKES for no other reason, buy it for this song. Thematically, “Mother” feels very much like U2’s OCTOBER, though even more plaintive.
Though I’ve listened to “Mother” innumerable times over the past quarter of a century, I’m still not exactly sure what it’s about. As always, though, images of autumn, innocence (and loss thereof), death, a funeral, poverty, and betrayal swirl around my soul and mind as I listen. “Mother, the car is here. Somebody leave the light on.” Well, nothing I write could ever do justice to the brilliance of this track. No matter what you pay for this album or what you think of the other songs, “Mother” makes this album one of the best albums I’ve ever encountered.
No matter what track would come next, it would be a bit of a letdown, simply because “Mother” is just so good. Still, track 10, “Tear in Your Hand,” is probably the weakest track on the album. It just feels generic. Too pop, but, unfortunately, with none of the interesting (if at times, terrifying) anger than rescued the earlier tracks. Admittedly, I generally fast forward this song. It’s the only weak one on LITTLE EARTHQUAKES, but there’s little to nothing redemptive about it.
Thankfully, track 11, “Me and a Gun,” is amazing, a painful revelation about abuse and justice. Deeply disturbing, Amos sings it acapella. If only this had come immediately after “Mother” without “Tear in Your Hand,” LITTLE EARTHQUAKES might be a perfect first album. Regardless. . . “Me and a Gun” is a cross between a late 1960’s protest song and a Flannery O’Connor short story. Wicked.
The second best track of the album is the final, self-titled track. It takes everything that Amos has done well on the earlier parts of the album and combines them into a whole, a fitting conclusion to a near perfect album.
No matter how many times I listen to LITTLE EARTHQUAKES, I always feel a bit relieved when I’ve actually survived all 57 minutes of it. It’s somewhat like hiking a steep mountain or swimming out to the island in the middle of the lake. The end point is always deceptively longer and more painful than it originally appeared. Yet, whatever stiches I feel in the side of my stomach at end of the journey, I’m satisfied. The same is true with a listen to LITTLE EARTHQUAKES. I’m not only happy to be done with it, but I’m also paradoxically already looking forward to the next listen. “Give me life, give me pain, give me myself again.”
Unless Amos is simply a great actress, I assume she’s been through hell and back in her life. Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing at the moment, Ms. Amos, I hope and pray (yes, I’m one of those Christian boys, though maybe lacking in the prowess you describe) you’re happier than you were in 1992. Still, I can’t help but thank you for sharing your deepest self.
Afternote: Amos’s second album, UNDER THE PINK, is a much better album, but that’s not to demean LITTLE EARTHQUAKES. Amos simply gets better with album number two. And, unlike many of her contemporaries who have either faded from the scene or lost their creative edge, Amos has actually gotten more and more progressive as she’s aged. Indeed, her last two albums are as progressive as anything that’s come from the likes of the best of the best in third-wave prog.