Piece By Piece by Tori Amos and Ann Powers
book review by matthew webber
MATT: After deleting several leads for this review that compared Tori Amos to any mythological being he could think of, a musician whose most listenable years are probably behind her, and Jewel, Matthew Webber gave up trying to be clever for once, because encapsulating his relationship with Amos, the co-author of the new nonfiction book – not quite a memoir, definitely not a journal – Piece by Piece, with music journalist Ann Powers, in 1,000 words or fewer would be complicated if not impossible to do.
Yet, he’ll try to do this below, in the oral-history style of the only new piece of Amos merchandise he has purchased this year, even though he has purchased several of her older CD singles, used, just because they always contain two or three b-sides he’s never heard before and they usually cost $2.99 or less, which, yes, means he hasn’t bought the accompanying new album, The Beekeeper, a fact that would have seemed sacrilegious to him once upon a time. In his defense, the new song he heard on the college radio station didn’t inspire him to spend $14.99 on the album. He thought her book might explain why this was, and it kind of did. But listen:
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN MATT AND MATTHEW: As I told my old college roommate, the guy whose 40-or-50-plus collection of Tori Amos albums, singles, and imports intimidated me from listening to any of her music on my own until he moved out, at which time she quickly became the female singer/songwriter whose music I listened to the most, as I myself accumulated a 20-plus collection of Tori Amos detritus but continued to believe she peaked with the prescient Little Earthquakes – as I told him, I almost put down Piece by Piece after the second chapter never to pick it up again, already having read my fill of the type of mythological, spiritual, psychological, sexual, etc. mumbo jumbo her detractors have always dismissed her for believing, because I was enjoying Tori Amos’ and/or Ann Powers’ occasionally meandering prose (which was not as hard to read as this paragraph, probably) about as much as I enjoyed listening to her increasingly meandering late-career albums, which never have been bad but have been very long and never as poetic as, say, “Silent All These Years.” (“But what if I’m a mermaid with these jeans of his with her name still on it?” she sang.)
I almost stopped reading, because I wanted Amos to be in print what she never was in music: straightforward.
When I picked up the book again, I discovered what I always discover in Amos’ songs: art that only seems complicated on its surface, art that is accessible if I dare to meet it halfway. Admittedly, meeting Amos’ mélange of Native American, Greek, Christian, Freudian, etc. stories, myths, tenets, dreams, etc. halfway is difficult – hence, despite its practical advice-giving chapters about how to be a songwriter and survive in the music industry, Piece by Piece would be an impossible read for anyone not already versed in the Book of Amos.
But, for Amos’ adherents, this Portrait of the Artist: Her Thoughts. Her Conversations. (the book’s subtitle) provides more insight into Amos’ creative process – if not Amos, and creativity, themselves – than anything heretofore published. Although Amos discusses her upbringing as a preacher’s daughter, the book is not an autobiography. Although Amos stops the narrative to discuss specific songs, the book is not a VH1 Storytellers transcript. (And, if you don’t own The Beekeeper, the explanations of most of the songs won’t mean anything to you.)
The book, really, is about Amos’s creative process: the lore from which she draws inspiration, the husband and daughter who inspire her as well. This Portrait… is a portrait of one artist as a middle-aged woman, reflecting, in different chapters, upon the composition, collaboration, and performance of her art.
The writing style, as befits its blend of voices, at times ranges from embarrassingly chatty to dryly critical. Again, a fascination with Amos, coupled with a tolerance for independent scholarship, helps a reader slog through Powers’ paragraph-long attempts to synthesize a lifetime of self-exploration, like she does here:
“The leap came with Boys for Pele, a head-to-head encounter with the dismembered feminine. The claustrophobic, clear sound of that album reflects the moment when Amos stood at the lip of her own volcano and made a sacrifice of her illusions. … She also met a male essence that she’d been chasing, and avoiding, for years: the Dark Prince, the other muse for the fiery efforts of this period.” (85-86)
This kind of writing is either mysterious yet revealing, or else it’s fanciful and more than a little bit off-putting, depending on how much you love Amos that day.
But, what surprised me the most about the book, after I resumed reading it, is how much more it made me appreciate Amos. Learning how she wants the rhythms in her new music to reflect her own rhythms (a poor synopsis of the idea that comes the closest to what someone might call the book’s plot) made me want to run out to the store immediately to buy The Beekeeper and then run back home to immerse myself in it and learn from it – even though I haven’t yet.
Why not? Because, just as I didn’t love Piece by Piece, The Beekeeper sounds like something I’ll merely appreciate.
My old roommate and I – who I saw recently for the first time in what, four years? – now agree, I think, about Tori Amos: We want something different, and probably more, from her than she can give anymore. And it’s not fair of us to demand this, or anything, from the artist. It’s sad. Our lives have changed – but not along with Tori Amos’. And not even Piece by Piece, which accomplished its own aims so resoundingly, can rekindle our anticipation for those new Tori Amos songs that we fear will be good but will not quite speak to us like her earlier masterpieces did.
Piece by Piece, then, becomes a portrait of an artist we loved as young men and still remember fondly now that we’re a little older.
I’m really in the mood to hear Boys for Pele now…
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