The Native Invader of the title of Tori Amos’ 15th studio album, released on September 8, 2017, is fairly unambiguous. The flame-haired singer-songwriter has never been afraid to shy away from politics – or religion, for that matter – since her seismic debut, Little Earthquakes, over two decades ago. And from the very first song, “Reindeer King,” it sounds like she means business.
It is an atmospheric, almost spiritual, opener that puts the “crystal core” of Mother Earth at the heart of things – yet there’s a tenderness and intimacy in its icy landscape that makes it so much more than a preachy “save the environment” song: “You know that I would skate/Skate all the way/Just to hold your hand/To take away your pain.”
The lyrics echo those of “Winter,” a much-loved, coming-of-age track from Little Earthquakes, which Amos often performs live, recalling herself as a child playing in the snow. Native Invader’s beauty lies herein – it’s political, yes, but it’s personal and intimate too. The album’s closest relatives are arguably Scarlet’s Walk (2002), an album rooted in the landscape of America, and American Doll Posse (2007), which took on George W Bush, though there is the earthiness and lightness of touch of The Beekeeper (2005) in there too.
By the third song, “Broken Arrow,” the bull has been taken firmly by the horns: “This broken arrow needs heeding/When great white fathers/Your mistress is inequality/Rash and reckless/Won’t get us/To where we want to be.”
With heavy reverb, like echoes rolling across the prairies, it’s a song, in sound and lyrics, that reminds us of Amos’ Native American heritage, which is where, in a sense, the album started. Last summer, Tori took a trip through North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains to reconnect with the stories and songlines of her mother’s family from that region, and the beauty of the natural world – creeks, rivers, seas, mountains, and shooting stars – permeates the record.
But life had other plans. In January, not long after one of the most tumultuous US elections in living memory, personal tragedy compounded political disaster: Tori’s mother suffered a severe stroke leaving her unable to speak, a subject most explicitly explored in the album on ‘Mary’s Eyes’.
“It wasn’t going to be a record of pain, blood and bone when I began,” Tori says of Native Invader. “It wasn’t going to be a record of division. But the Muses 9 insisted that I listened and watched the conflicts that were traumatizing the nation and write about those raw emotions. Hopefully people will find strength and resilience within the songs to give them the energy to survive the storms that we are currently in.”
There are storms aplenty in Native Invader. All is not well in the natural world. Waters swell, or freeze over. “Good Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise,” she sings on one of the album’s singles, which contains a sly humor in its title, “Up The Creek.” According to Amos, it was a favorite saying of her Cherokee grandfather. Tori and her daughter, Natashya Hawley, trade lines in a bluesy call to arms: “You know that’s the time/We must stand/Strong – /Every girl in every band/Every cosmic cowboy in the land/To the Earth will you show mercy?”
As well as the opposing powers of creation and destruction, themes of masculinity and femininity run through the album. It’s possibly no coincidence that two of the songs that take on Trump most explicitly feature heavier guitar and percussion: “Broken Arrow” and “Bang.” The latter is an enjoyably inventive track linking the Big Bang to the ridiculousness of Trump’s immigration policies; we’re all made of the same stuff, Amos seems to be saying.
Not that she’s arguing feminine: good, masculine: bad; but more, perhaps, that Alpha Male wall-building, pussy-grabbing posturing harms us all. “Cause sometimes/Big boys, they need to cry,” she sings on “Wings.”
And yet to these ears, it is the more delicately beautiful tracks which strike most strongly: the heartbreaking lament “Breakaway” – a relative, surely, of Boys For Pele’s “Hey Jupiter,” with its echo of the “writing on the wall” – and “Climb,” in which Tori and her piano take center stage in a simple but gorgeous track that revisits the church days of her childhood (her father was a Methodist minister).
It’s a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on one of her earliest albums – Little Earthquakes or Under The Pink (1994), though, as Amos points out, “it’s a long, long climb going back in time”. The chorus lingers in the mind for days after listening: “All of me wants to believe/That the angels will find me Saint Veronica.”
Out of a time of uncertainty and fear, Amos has created a work of great beauty. Despite its dark conception, Native Invader is an album full of hope and playfulness, light as well as shadows, love as well as fury.