Tori On My Mind: Checking In to Choirgirl Hotel

It’s tricky: What do you do if you’re a man in your mid-30’s and you find yourself driving around the mountains of upstate New York in a state of some internal misery, falling for the voice and music of a female rock star? Not a “mature” performer like Shawn Colvin or Patti Smith, mind you, both well-traveled women in their 40’s. No, your particular lollipop is Tori Amos, who at 34 is a good decade older than her core fan base, who worship her loopy lyrics and postmodern Stevie Nicks esthetic with all the intensity and subtlety of a schoolgirl crush. And there you are, clearly in the wrong place at the wrong time. You know you should be listening to more redemptive, “healthy” stuff, that you should be more like Leonard Cohen, who once sang that he was “looking for someone who had lines in her face.” But you can’t help it, you just hop in the car and drive everywhere with Tori. You even dabble in the estimated 4,000 Tori Amos Web pages, filled with photos, video clips and odes from thousands of her gushing, scarily devoted fans (e.g. “Meeting Tori Amos in person is an amazing experience. She chats with you like you are her old friend, and you quickly realize how friendly, warm, open, and human she is.”) You see that the name of one of the Web sites is “Little Fascist Panties,” and you think the meaning of this is unclear but clearly not good. Get a grip, you tell yourself. Go out and buy a Joni Mitchell CD.

No dice. Tori’s in your blood. With her Clairol Torrid Torch Crimson hair, this daughter of a North Carolina preacher, whose real name is Myra Ellen Amos, first entered your world when you saw a video of hers some years back, in which she danced with big live writhing snakes and let rats crawl over her, all the while keeping a coy smile on her wide, red lips. The sound was incidental.

You read some things about Tori. (Her fans always refer to her as just “Tori.”) How she was a classically trained pianist who enrolled in the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, when she was just 5. How she loved Led Zeppelin, later sang Gershwin in gay bars, how in 1988 she headed up a really bad Los Angeles hair metal band called Y Kant Tori Read. How in 1990 she moved to England and released her first album, Little Earthquakes , which sold over a million copies and how each of her next two albums– Under the Pink and Boys for Pele –did, too. How in her live shows she seemed to achieve carnal knowledge of her piano bench. How her songs dealt with her anger at Christianity, with her own date rape, with her sexuality. You read interviews and cringed at the dopey stuff she said, stuff like, “Socks and mittens are my friends” or “I think that people who can’t believe in faeries aren’t worth knowing.”

Of course, you went right out and bought Tori’s 1996 album, Boys for Pele , and it became the soundtrack for a rough patch, the tape on auto-reverse as you drove the mountains and cried your tears of self-pity. Then you put Tori away, returned to expensive box sets of blues and folk masters, returned to Bob Dylan and Ella Fitzgerald. Until two years later, May 1998, when her new album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, was released by Atlantic Records. You pounced on it like a cat.

You found much to like, even love, on the album. While sometimes Ms. Amos’ lyrics, like those of Beck, appear to be nothing more than meaningless word salad–”The Lord of the Flies was diagnosed as sound”–she is able to be both deeply funny, as in “Playboy Mommy” (“Don’t judge me so harsh little girl/ so you got a playboy mommy”), about a mom in platforms who was “a good friend of American soldiers”; and cleverly honest, as in “Northern Lad” (“Girls, you’ve got to know/ when it’s time to turn the page/ when you’re only wet/ because of the rain”). And then there’s her tremendous piano playing; she is clearly describing herself when she sings, “I guess you go too far/ when pianos try to be guitars.” Those who agree that the Rolling Stones were never so hot as when they had Ian Stewart accompanying them on piano will welcome Ms. Amos’ one-woman keyboard bash, abundantly evident on the album’s most raucous song, “She’s Your Cocaine,” about a toxic woman men destroy themselves over.

There are also a number of nice ballads, including “Jackie’s Strength,” in which the singer remembers a childhood marked by John F. Kennedy’s assassination and “lunch boxes worshipping David Cassidy,” and then faces her own wedding day with trepidation: “Never thought my day would come/ my bridesmaids getting laid I pray for Jackie’s strength.” Ms. Amos, who calls herself “the Sybil of songwriting,” has told interviewers that each song on the new album represents a different female character, all of whom are staying in the fictional “Choirgirl Hotel.” One thing many of the hotel guests have in common is an awareness of the cruel ironies of romance (“If you love enough you’ll lie a lot”) and a robust fondness for sticky female sexuality, as in “Raspberry Swirl,” when Ms. Amos sings, “If you want inside her/ well,/ boy you better make her raspberry swirl.”

But there’s some bad news as well: Ms. Amos has discovered electronica and trip-hop. Whereas on Boys for Pele she played harpsichord when she wanted to get radical, the new record has some unfortunate forays into high-tech gimmickry. On some tracks, notably “Hotel” and “Cruel,” Ms. Amos sounds disturbingly like Madonna. Ethereal Girl slumming with Material Girl. One trusts it’s just a phase.

Is From the Choirgirl Hotel as good as Boys for Pele ? Probably. But how can you tell, when the circumstances of your listening are so different? Back in ’96, you were vulnerable, a bit of a mess, you needed the sentimentality and masochism of Tori’s kooky, grad student mysticism. Now you’ve emerged from all that. You’ll put Choirgirl on the CD rack, maybe give it to your little sister, and head to Tower Records to check out that new Miles Davis reissue.

But that doesn’t explain why you’ve just written down an Internet address where, it is promised, you can download pictures of Tori’s recent wedding day.