PART ONE: INTRODUCTION
Every morning the palm trees outside my window are a sign of comfort. These trees symbolize emancipation from my past and the security of my present. I’ve believed for a long time that it’s unwise to depend on human beings but I always depend on the palms.
I look at tragedy from a different angle now. I find myself unmoved by disaster. Disaster is inevitable and screaming is useless. It’s just noise. And every decade births the next generation of passionate kids carrying signs, having opinions, and usually not making much of a difference. I carried a sign once. And I still have opinions. But there’s a fifty percent chance that I’m completely wrong about everything.
“The Beekeeper” is Tori Amos’ best album. Rob couldn’t wrap his head around my opinion. “There’s just no Passion on that album” he told me. I remember how when I was young passion was certainly spelled with a capital “P”. On a long ride home I began to think about passion. I was wrong for once thinking that passion fades when you age. Passion can’t fade it just changes color.
Now pretend there’s a war happening five feet in front of you. Make believe you are eighteen years old. What does the war look like? Scream and kick and bang piano keys if you must but the war won’t stop.
Now imagine yourself as a forty-something year old survivor. Do you find yourself immune to grisly scenes? You are incapable of shock or awe. Do you recall the moment in your life when you finally accepted that the fighting will never stop? I don’t remember the day myself… but along the way I decided to unemotionally take a seat. And from where I sit I have a great view and I’m certainly not enjoying the show.
Now let’s also differentiate coming-of-age fury from passionate wisdom. Hear the difference between the banshee cries of a recently raped young woman versus the reflective stories the same woman will spin many years later? Listen closely. Though her aged voice may at first seem slightly monotone her observations are acute and her stories are frightening.
Now listen even closer…
When I bought Tori Amos’ “Beekeeper” album in 2005 I quickly dismissed it as a slick and overindulgent clunker. Years later with the 2009 release of her “Abnormally Attracted To Sin” album (also dismissed as a clunker) I found myself mysteriously drawn back to the bees. In this essay I will attempt to explore the different colors of passion. I will also try to explain how the world looks outside of my window past the palm trees. And let’s also talk about how Tori Amos’ “Beekeeper” relates to my thirty four year old mind.
PART TWO: WHEN I COME TO TERMS TO TERMS WITH THIS
I have my little pleasures
this wall being one of them
On the opening track of “The Beekeeper” Tori Amos recasts herself as a painting. Every other means of defense and protection has failed. Violence is futile and reasoning has proven itself useless. The frame of a painting provides an absolute kind of safety.
And so we face the inevitable. We age. We have children or we live alone. We graduate college or work. And with each passing year we are survivors of the ugliness and indifference of human kind. To a sensitive being there is no option but to cocoon. To search for a neutral zone. Perhaps that neutral zone is an apartment in Tampa, Florida. Or a house in Cornwall, England. Or a painting on a wall without a sea view. In this song “Parasol” Tori Amos remains dead still…an observer out of harm’s way.
the seated woman with the parasol may be the only one you can’t betray
if I’m the seated woman in my parasol…I will be safe in my frame…
Those begrudging the slick production must realize that this song shouldn’t exist in any other form. In our thirties and forties we may find our selves with lovely decorated kitchens and comfortable living rooms. We may find ourselves domesticated in our apartments and homes. Or we may find ourselves hanging in a picture frame within the context of a song with slick adult contemporary production. If you meet us on the street we probably won’t tell you what is on our mind. We may not even tell our closest friends what is on our mind anymore. But if get up close to us and dig past the surface of our shiny pots and pans we may clue you into the resigned cynicism buried deep beneath our tasty guitar licks.
Tori Amos is a wealthy woman in her forties living in a comfortable home in Cornwall, England. The emotional slaughtering of her twenties has been dealt with and packed away. But nobody successfully navigates the emotional jungle unscathed. In the absence of scars and bleeding you may find a weariness for humanity and a manageable life executed from a bomb shelter of your own creation. My metaphorical bomb shelter smells of incense and is home to four Persian rugs. “The Beekeeper” finds Tori Amos accurately commenting on our alarmingly terrifying present from the serene safety of her own metaphorical bomb shelter. And in the process she is not only a woman who burns sage…she has become a sage. The music on “The Beekeeper” might at first seem safe and calm and boring as a summer afternoon in rural England. Stop and let the wind hit you just the right way. Listen. This is the wisdom of enduring disappointment and its phantoms. A most gorgeous and subtle kind of sadness.
PART THREE: ARE YOU POSITIVE THIS IS A FRIEND?
It would be accurate to say I was cordially invited into “The Beekeeper” via the Jamaica Inn. As goes those perfect moments when life experience finds itself completely synonymous with a song I found myself invited into the lobby of “Jamaica Inn”. A bright major key piece of music propelled along by mandolin and gorgeous piano runs, “Jamaica Inn” shot itself straight into the core of what I was feeling at an exact time and space. Betrayal. At nineteen years old perhaps my reaction to betrayal would have been a temper tantrum, or a rallying up of my troops to wage war. At thirty four years old I know better. As shattering as it still can be, people generally will betray you. Including your mother and your closest friends.
“Jamaica Inn” is a tune about a ship at sea during a storm, being drawn into harbor by a warm and safe light. As the song progresses we learn that the light is actually being operated by pirates with the intention of ill harm and robbery. I find this song rich with metaphorical imagery and wisdom far beyond Amos’ prior work. The tune’s mantra is the repeating line “the sexiest thing is trust.” And in this time of my life when I am questioning the validity of art and music it’s comforting to realize that my belief in trust is unwavering. There is little that is more heartbreaking than being shipwrecked by someone you know and did trust. We’ve all found ourselves stranded on craggy metaphorical cliffs defenseless to pelting rain. Even recently I’ve experienced betrayal at the hands of a woman I trusted for eleven years. Shocking, but not unexpected. So within “Jamaica Inn” I found comfort and solace. As I stepped into the song I was reminded I am not the only one navigating choppy water. I remember being a child and looking forward to growing up…confident that all the childish behaviors that polluted youth would cease during adulthood. Disheartening it was to find out that maturity did not extinguish the negativity of the human spirit. As a disappointed adult “Jamaica Inn” felt like a safe place to hide.
The theme of betrayal continues into the track “Barons Of Suburbia”. As odd a track as any on this album, this one contains the lyric about “losing a piece to a carnivorous vegetarian”. I think back in amusement to the violent vegans I once knew. It’s a glaring hypocrisy to justify (and sometimes encourage) harm on each other while righteously not eating animals. And so progress runs in place.
But I was given perspective by the “Barons”. My problems are miniscule trivialities – just another peg in the big picture. As horrific as my injustices look up close they are just a “molehill of a mountain”. I take a step back.
It is the closing passage of “Barons Of Sububia” that is the most bizarre. As the slick and mannered music chugs along Tori gets increasingly worked up. Perhaps one could recall a vintage Tori Amos recording with similar vocal inflections. Nestled on a musical bed of harpsichord and harmonium, the Tori Amos that shrieked in 1996’s “Blood Roses” seemed out for blood and murder. But as the intensity of the vocals increase during “Barons Of Suburbia” it seems more probable that at the height of her anger, Tori Amos might throw a pan across her sunny kitchen when no one is looking. And it is essential at this point of this essay to realize that this isn’t a bad thing. As we age we internalize. For fuck’s sake it’s about time someone made music tailored for the emotional behaviors of those past the age of thirty one. My thirty four year old expression of frustration is much more “Barons Of Suburbia” than it is “Blood Roses”. Mannered anger. Restraint. At the end of “Barons” Tori’s time bomb almost explodes but it doesn’t. We’ve learned how to behave in public. And perhaps unfortunately, in private too.
Later on the album “Witness” again summarizes the devastation of betrayal. During the uptempo verses a fury is acknowledged. It is during this track’s half tempo middle break that the entire range of reactionary emotions are explored. Anger to frustration to sadness and back again.
PART FOUR: ONE DAY I’LL BE COMING FOR YOU
It is important to realize that “The Beekeeper” must be taken as a whole. Never would I have imagined that the album I once felt didn’t have one good song turned out to be the album without a single misstep. Upon repeated listening I found these songs to be full of ghostly and unexpected passages. Tori’s glaringly Caucasian stabs at soul at first seemed sterile and mannered. My initial opinions were dispelled by repeated spins. The choir voices revealed themselves to be enchantingly haunting. On both the rising run of notes on the chorus of “Sweet The Sting” and the melancholy bridge of “Witness”, Tori employs the choir to cook up a subtle brand of voodoo. (This is only further underlined by the stripped down live versions found on the “Hammersmith Apollo, London, U.K. 6/4/05” CD.)
One of the joys of truly getting to know “The Beekeeper” was exploring the different caves and coves hidden in the tracks. “General Joy” for example, struts along mid-tempo and mild. But tucked away within the song is a gorgeously eerie passage. As Tori laments about a dress “matching her eyes when she cries” the music and melody make an unexpectedly quick turn for the somber. And really how many songs detail transport via tram?
Equally mysterious is “Martha’s Foolish Ginger”. The track commences with a plodding drum beat that preps the listener for a classic Tori Amos minor key mid tempo. But then the piano enters major key, bouncing, skipping, and foggily atmospheric. Research will reveal that “Martha’s Foolish Ginger” is the name of a boat but even that information ceases to inform the listener with the entire story. Its repeated mantra of “if those harbor lights had just been a half a mile inland…who knows what I would have done…” teleports the listener into an ominously whimsical nocturnal space. “Martha’s Foolish Ginger” introduces an element of otherworldly mystery into Tori Amos’ ouvre. Climb into this song and you will find yourself somewhere ancient, foreign, uncertain, and most likely European.
The apex of the darkness on this album certainly lies within the title track. Although the album artwork comes with a high concept system of dividing the songs into gardens, I am going to avoid incorporating this into my discussion. Tori’s concept of six gardens and honey combs is fascinating and obtuse at best…but this framework is secondary to the songs themselves. After I butterfly stroked through “The Beekeeper’s” tracks I approached the garden concept as an after thought. Only after familiarizing myself with the tracks did I explore how the artist herself divided up the songs. Fun but not essential.
With the album concept nonwithstanding, the title track stands alone as a milestone and center piece. I remember upon the albums’ initial release fans took well to this song due to its “Choirgirl-esque” textures. But while “from the choirgirl hotel” was an about loss, “The Beekeeper” is about loss prevention. Namely the loss of Amos’ own mother.
Perhaps the most haunting song in Amos’ entire catalog, “The Beekeeper” is a chilling tale of a quest to meet the maker in a desperate attempt to spare her mother’s passing. “Anything but this…can you use me instead” asks Tori amidst a swirl of droning organs and a pitter-pattering electronic pulses. If the beekeeper is a derivative of God and the queen bee is Tori’s mother…the song itself is heartbreaking. In her younger years Amos sang haunting tales of rape, misogyny, and violence. This song’s disturbing and uncertain nod towards immortality is yet another milestone in a woman’s evolution.
I’m the one who taps you on the shoulder when it’s your turn…
Don’t be confused…one day I’ll be coming for you…
No one is spared.
PART FIVE: BALLOONS LOOK GOOD FROM ON THE GROUND
Refreshing is “The Beekeeper’s” keen and accurate analyzation of adult companionship. “Love” as it truly exists can be quite boring. But a song like “Sleeps With Butterflies” neatly packages the tribulations that exist when two adults make a lasting and long term commitment. It is interesting to hear these complexities explored within the context of modern pop music. Sweeping and gorgeous, “Butterflies” tackles the issues of intimacy vs. space and freedom vs. commitment all in under four glorious romantic minutes.
Equally gorgeous is “Ribbons Undone,” a moving and sweeping audio portrait of Amos’ daughter. I’ve heard fans complain that this song is too syrupy for their taste but on the contrary I find “Ribbons” to be one of Amos’ most moving and majestic compositions.
Perhaps sometimes it is to Tori’s disadvantage that her current work will always be measured against her chaotic, dark, and brilliant back catalog. I do believe that had “The Beekeeper” been Tori Amos’ debut album it would have been given a much warmer reception. “The Beekeeper” gives a voice to outsider thirty and forty-somethings just as precisely as “Little Earthquakes” did for outsider twenty-somethings. “The Beekeeper” emotes the same maternal warmth to be found on some of Carly Simon’s classic mid-1970s output. Think “Hotcakes” for the 21st Century. Photos of “Beekeeper” era Tori Amos found her at her most gorgeous – emoting a natural, simple, and beautiful warmth.
“Original Sinsuality” texturally returns Amos to the piano and voice approach of her early solo recordings. However with thirteen years of wisdom accumulated since her debut album “Sinsuality” could only properly exist on “The Beekeeper”. As the chorus of the song kicks in, a studio vocal effect is placed on Tori’s voice. This further adds to the tracks successful quirkiness.
No, it should be original sinsuality.
PART SIX: IT NEVER WAS THE CARS AND GUITARS THAT CAME BETWEEN US
And in the year 2009 what is really daring anymore? When playing the music game slick pop artists are usually given critical credibility for later-period experimental and so-called edgy projects. The public tends to reward grittiness. Perhaps we need to reconsider the commonplace belief that one must be jagged and untamed to be authentic.
For an artist like Tori Amos who began her career releasing obtuse, challenging, and off-the-radar material, “The Beekeeper” is perhaps the most daring experiment possible. Eight albums into her career wouldn’t it make sense that Tori would want to challenge the boundaries of her music? Even if it means a temporary detour into the well-produced? Would we not all agree that it would be a farce for her (or anyone) to remain edgy only for the sake of maintaining public expectation? Given the topic matter of the material, her age and location while writing this material, and the time period in which the material was released, it only makes sense to me that “The Beekeeper” emerged exactly as it did. Amos certainly didn’t lose her fire. She was in a safer place, and damn well her music should reflect that. Do we want an artist to suffer with, or to grow with?
The moments most repellent to me upon my initial listen in 2005 have turned out to be some of my favorites. “Ireland” is about as feel-good as a song can come, complete with the unjustly cringe-worthy introduction line “driving in my Saab on my way to Ireland…” But let’s pause for a moment. Tori Amos has always written music that is a hundred percent representative of her exact time and space. As a middle-aged mother do we expect Tori to drive a clunker? Or do we expect Tori to omit the name of her car to avoid being judged? If Tori is to remain a reporter of the times…wasn’t it ballsy as fuck to proudly proclaim her moment in the Saab? Perhaps it is a flaw in us that we are only willing to give artistic creedence to those who are poor, or those who disguise themselves as “street smart” only for the sake of marketing and sales. I find it a signature mark in her audio-autobiography for Amos to boldly acknowledge her comfortable financial standing. With a wealth of truth and wisdom to be found elsewhere in the album’s many tracks no points are deducted by me.
“Cars and Guitars” is another strange tune. The number opens with Tori making odd chugging sounds over the warm and poppy musical introduction. As the verses emerge we find Amos making passable (but not brilliant) analogies, comparing her body to a motor vehicle. It is only when we reach the chorus that the song truly soars…and once again “The Beekeeper” comes out a winner. Once Tori gets past the “it never was the cars and guitars that came between us” and moves along to the “what if I keep on drivin'” section, the track is elevated to an emotionally charged cathartic climax. Our imaginations are transported to that moment we’ve all entertained. The moment where we’ve considered flight. The moment where we’ve considered the temporary freedom of the endless highway. But as quickly as that thought (and musical section) comes, it leaves. And we are back again to the strange chugging of the introduction.
“Hoochie Woman” is in a way the “Happy Phantom” of this album. Short, silly, and singable. It is undisputably cheesy for anyone to sing about dropping coffee and bringing home the bacon. But again this is a matter of autobiographical songwriting reporting accurately. It is safe to assume this song isn’t about Tori, but an extension of some character that exists in her mind. I find it hard to accept that the female heroine that lives within “Hoochie Woman” would be drinking a bloody mary or a Bud Light. She just HAS to drink coffee. So as the character spills said coffee her man runs off with yet another hoochie woman. Hopefully our character didn’t stain her smart beige blouse.
PART SEVEN: AS MARS SAUNTERS THROUGH HIS DOOR
There are a few “Beekeeper” tracks I didn’t mention that I would like to acknowledge. “Marys Of The Sea” is epic and majestic. Closing track “Toast” is a the touching eulogy to her recently departed brother (he is also mentioned in a backup vocal on the title track). “Mother Revolution” is a heartfelt. The bonus DVD contains the lovely “Garlands” and some moving and descriptive commentary from Amos herself. Especially touching are the backstories behind “Jamaica Inn” and “Ribbons Undone”.
But it is the “Beekeeper’s” two most emotional tracks that are its best. The first is found third song from the start, while the second is found third song from the last.
“The Power Of Orange Knickers” is easily the album’s most catchy track. Propelled by a guest vocal from Damien Rice, one of the songs more memorable hooks lies in the repeated question of “won’t somebody tell me now…who is this terrorist.” And while Tori asks this question in this track, the answer is found in nearly all of the album’s remaining songs. Terrorism is found in the people that betrayed us in “Jamaica Inn,” “Barons Of Suburbia” and “Witness.” Terrorism exists in the wars grown men created within “General Joy” and “Mother Revolution.” There’s terrorism in the infidelity of the bored partner in “Hoochie Woman”. There’s even terrorism in the hypocrisy of organized religion tackled in “Marys Of The Sea” and “Original Sinsuality.”
By track three gone is the guarded and quiet observationalist found in “Parasol.” “The Power Of Orange Knickers” builds until it climaxes with a final verse sung in full voice. Even Damien Rice jumps an octave, singing this final verse in his higher register. The final moments of this track are riveting and goosebump worthy.
Just as emotional is the album’s seventeenth track, “Goodbye Pisces.” Armed with some of her most exquisite and poetic lyrics Amos recounts the damage a departing partner can cause at a relationship’s end. The music is subtle, beautiful, and heartbreaking. But while many heartbreak songs wallow in maudlin sentimentality, the major key “Goodbye Pisces” has the bounce that comes once failure is accepted.
So how will I go back on
Back on the shelf
With a smile with a smile to the customer
And say for sale by the owner
By the final notes of “Goodbye Pisces” Tori Amos has beaten the war on terrorism.
PART EIGHT: CONCLUSION
And so here I sit at 2:29 alone on a Wednesday night. I once spent most of my evenings dancing in the throes of escapism. These days I’ve come to enjoy the sizzling introspection and my nights away from casual acquaintances. In the moonlight my palm trees look mysterious and skeptical.
I am thankful I discovered “The Beekeeper” when I did. (Once I realized she was singing “sea view” and not “savior” I was sold.) It took the release of “Abnormally Attracted To Sin” to remind me how much I loved her prior album “American Doll Posse.” And after spending a little time with the Posse it was then I gave “The Beekeeper” another go round. And not a moment too soon. In a time of my life when I was feeling a lot of remorse and anger the album provided a soothing lotion to troubled thoughts. These songs haven given my worn adult mind a means to process and understand the bleak wounding of modern humanity. I don’t know how to scream anymore but I do know how to sit and watch. It’s good to know I am not alone on these sidelines. (I do wonder if years from now “Abnormally Attracted To Sin” will emerge as a masterpiece in her own right.)
“The Beekeeper” is as comfortable and warm as the bed I’ve slept in for the last eleven years. It is as welcoming as my sunny kitchen is at eleven o’clock in the morning. As existence continues to pellet me with curve balls I will probably remain too mannered to claw or scream or kill. Like Tori Amos and probably a lot of other people my age I have become the seated woman with the parasol.
It’s the only way I cannot be betrayed.