An excellent place to start the journey through Amos’ canon.
It begins and ends in a near whisper. Released in 1996, Tori Amos’ third album, Boys for Pele, was a commercial gamble. With 18 tracks clocking in at 70 minutes, the word “dense” doesn’t even begin to describe this thing. A concept album about the problems with and various facets of masculinity, religion and spirituality, and making sacrifices to the volcano goddess Pele, amongst other topics, the album is a difficult, demanding listen—and a surprisingly rewarding one.
Despite the risk, it was one of Amos’ most successful albums, with one of her best known singles (“Caught a Lite Sneeze”) and one of her most devastating songs (“Hey Jupiter”). Intensely personal while still hiding behind layers of mystique and evocative, fragmented lyrics, Boys for Pele is fragile and gorgeous, volatile, dissonant and cacophonic.
At times, Amos barely rises above a whisper, as on opener “Beauty Queen,” which quietly slides into the sweeping grandeur of “Horses.” Intimate moments of just Amos and a piano contrast with layers of bombast, incorporating the quaint timbre of the harpsichord with more aggressive lyrics like “You think I’m a queer/ I think you’re a queer” on the breathless “Blood Roses.” “Professional Widow,” which may or may not be about Courtney Love, features a slow motion, industrial sounding dirge backing the harpsichord while Amos repeats “Starfucker,” ending the track with the unsettling yelp, “Give me peace, love, and a hard cock.”
Not everything is so confrontational; there are moments of whimsy like the short “Mr. Zebra,” the blink-and-you-miss-it Eagles lyric that begins “In the Springtime of his Voodoo,” and even the jaunty twinkling of “Father Lucifer,” inspired by Amos’ shaman-led experimentation with psychedelic drugs that allegedly led to an encounter with the devil.
The album balances dramatic, grand, sweeping piano-driven songs like the string-laden “Marianne” with the haunting slow-motion “Not the Red Barron,” the cathartic release of “Putting the Damage On” and slinking and sultry tracks like “Doughnut Song” and “Little Amsterdam.”
The high point may be “Hey Jupiter,” written after Amos was visited by the ghost of John Lennon in a hotel room in Arizona. It’s yet another song that begins as a whisper before growing into something else entirely. Note that the wordless, otherworldly howling Amos lets loose with during the song’s refrain is similar to the conclusion of Prince’s “Purple Rain.”
For its 20th anniversary release, the remastered Boys for Pele includes an additional disc of B-sides, remixes and live performances. Hardcore fans may well have many of these tracks, which are cut from a similar cloth as the album. Also included is the “Dakota Version” of “Hey Jupiter,” which changes the structure of the song drastically and makes it less impactful, but perhaps emphasizes its similarities with “Purple Rain.” But one of the reissue’s big selling points is “To the Fair Motormaids of Japan,” recorded during the album sessions but previously unreleased despite a kind of fan mythology surrounding it. Another sparsely arranged track, it would have fit well on the album, Amos again balancing her fragile whisper with her visceral, cathartic howl.
Revisiting Boys for Pele 20 years after its release, its ideas seems as timeless and relevant as eve: on the unearthed demo, “Fire Eater’s Wife/Beauty Queen,” Amos asks, “What would this world be like without nasty girls?,” echoing the recent Presidential election.
A concept album can be daunting to the listener, and Amos’ discography is filled with them. Boys for Pele is an odd listen that can be both inviting and warm, while still keeping you at arm’s length with unnerving tension. For the longtime Amos fan—you already know how good this album is. For the casual fan, or those just discovering the album, it’s an excellent place to start the journey through her canon.