Describing a good album is like explaining a Dali painting to a blind person: The individual shapes and colors are simple to describe, but to talk about the meaning of the work as a whole is daunting, if not impossible. Such is the case with Tori Amos’s solo debut, Little Earthquakes. It’s an album that almost immediately sparked cult interest in the singer, and has, over time, undoubtedly become a soundtrack to the lives of many anguished teens and adults. Throughout the album, Amos shifts emotions (rage, fear, sadness, though hardly ever joy or regret) and indulges the quirks of her own personality with a whimsy that’s enviable. She explores extreme human emotions that many choose to bury and others can only long for. And amid it all, Amos manages to create an album more focused and accessible (an adjective not often used to describe the often-eccentric star’s music) than anything she’s produced since.
There’s an overwhelming feeling throughout Little Earthquakes that Amos is being chased. The very first moments of the album’s opening track, “Crucify,” evoke this sense of dread: “Every finger in the room is pointing at me,” she starts. The song’s verses begin quietly, Amos’s piano dancing gingerly atop a decisive kick-drum before erupting into the more fully fleshed-out choruses. “Nothing I do is good enough for you,” she sings, addressing God, her father, or perhaps even a lover, but despite the song’s obvious allusions to Christ, Amos never once martyrs herself. It’s this fierce independence that has made Amos’s music so powerful. It’s her purely indomitable spirit that makes her so thrilling to listen to. If you’re a victim, Amos speaks to you. If you’re a survivor, she speaks for you.
Many of the album’s songs are structured in chinks of time. “Winter” finds Amos singing from the perspective of a young child; in the second verse, “boys get discovered as winter melts” as Amos enters adolescence. By the end of the song, Amos fully captures the passage of time and her father’s impending old age (and imminent death). Similarly, the album’s first single, “Silent All These Years,” begins with Amos as a child, takes us through her teenage years (“Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon,” she says to a boyfriend with derision), and to the present, where Amos relishes the fact that she’s no longer silent (or feels that she needs to be). Whole essays could be written about this one song alone, or even the terrifying implications of one simple lyric: “My scream got lost in a paper cup.” By song’s end, Amos is willing to offer a hand to those who’ve allegedly silenced her “all these years.”
The piano ballad “Mother,” in which Amos leaves home and sets out to become a star/whore, hints at the more classically trained style of Amos’s “piano album,” Under the Pink, but most of the songs on Little Earthquakes follow archetypical pop formulas, down to the sweetened choruses of “Tear in Your Hand” and “Girl” and the love-song sentimentality of the delicate “China.” Though Little Earthquakes is dressed up in high-art, prog-rock fashions, Amos’s arrangements wouldn’t become overly ambitious or jarring until her messy third album, Boys for Pele. Lilting melodies are matched with lush, cinematic orchestrations; frantic piano parts are met with equally raging electric guitars. Amos’s surrealist imagery here is striking and poetic (“In the doorway they stay/And laugh as violins fill with water,” she observes matter-of-factly on “Girl”), not wanton or half-baked. Of course, Little Earthquakes is still steeped in melodrama, from the hushed whimpers of “Mother” (“Mother, the car is here,” she sings repeatedly with increasing dismay) to the wails and guttural growls of the tour de force “Precious Things” (has a piano ever “rocked” quite like this?).
Little Earthquakes is largely concerned with reconciling or reflecting on the past, particularly Amos’s youth. But larger, more adult issues pack the biggest punches. Amos imagines how her death will affect her lover on “Happy Phantom” (“Will you still call for me when she falls asleep/Or do we soon forget the things we cannot see?”) and recalls a rape with cutting (and bloody) honesty on “Leather” (“I can scream as loud as your last one/But I can’t claim innocence”). (For those who prefer their rape stories to be more visceral or frighteningly candid, she takes on a more sobering tone on the infamous “Me and a Gun.”) By the time you reach album’s end, you’re so immersed in Amos’s world that you can’t help but take everything she says at face value: “We danced in graveyards with vampires till dawn,” she sings on the title track. But it’s not enough to simply believe her. Like Dali, Amos begs you to become a part of her twisted world, and it’s usually hard to resist.