Tori Amos in full-on concept-album mode is a dodgy proposition. Boys for Pele is perhaps the most purposefully dense album in her catalogue, and the better tracks on American Doll Posse were enhanced by her adoption of various personae. But Amos’s post-feminist covers record, Strange Little Girls, was a didactic exercise in gender politics, and The Beekeeper‘s unique structure couldn’t mask how dull and plodding Amos’s songwriting was. Night of Hunters falls neatly at the halfway point between those two extremes: Its inspirations from specific classical pieces are on point, but the album’s arrangements are just too consistently somnolent to inspire the level of active engagement that the record’s narrative arc merits and rewards.
That Night of Hunters isn’t billed as a proper pop record—it’s being released by the classical label Deutsche Grammophon—works in Amos’s favor, in that she isn’t hamstrung by her predilection for deliberate, calculated inaccessibility. Broadly, the record reveals a single, linear narrative of a woman who experiences a fever dream after having been left alone by her lover, and the various mythical figures she encounters in this dream state reveal to her how the roles of a hunter and the prey both define romantic relationships. It’s a story with the protracted scope of an opera, and it’s to Amos’s credit that some of her more twee flights of fancy don’t detract from the overall journey of the unnamed protagonist she’s created.
As is the case with most of Amos’s output since her last unequivocally great album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, the exact details are what occasionally mar her songwriting here. “Battle of Trees” takes a turn for the ludicrous when Amos sings to her lover, “No one had more sharper consonants than you, love,” speaking to the idea of language as a battle-ready weapon, but also singing the line like it’s meant to be a come-on. The imagery from “Star Whisperer” recalls the worst fantasy fiction (“Will your cloud-riders come?/Why, oh why, have you locked up your sky?”), while the more awkward lines of “Job’s Coffin” (“There is a grid of disempowerment/Our forces are being called to dismantle this”) stumble over forced rhymes and some of Amos’s idiosyncratic syntax.
The more direct songs on Night of Hunters are genuinely beautiful and transcend the trappings of the album’s rigid construct. “Nautical Twilight” marks a key turn in the album’s narrative, but it also works as a standalone song of rediscovering one’s identity following a difficult breakup: “I turned my back/On the force of which I am made/I abandoned it/Rupturing a delicate balance/When I left my world for his.” The tension in opener “Shattering Sea,” as Amos observes, “That is not my blood on the bedroom floor,” both establishes context for the album’s greater arcs and serves as a compelling mood piece on its own.
The jagged strings, arranged by Amos’s longtime collaborator John Philip Shenale, that punctuate “Shattering Sea” are perfectly pitched to the song’s mysterious tone, giving that track one of the album’s most immediate, accessible arrangements. With Amos’s drawing inspiration for each song from a different classical piece, there are no conventional pop structures or hooks to speak of on Night of Hunters. Certainly there’s no faulting the captivating melodies that Amos derives from Chopin’s “Nocturne Op.9 No.1” (on the horribly named but otherwise lovely “Cactus Practice”) or Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair (on “Carry”), and Amos has never had a better opportunity to showcase the full breadth of her classical training. But the album suffers from a sameness of tempo—“Job’s Coffin” hits an andante, and it’s the liveliest cut on the record—that ultimately does a disservice to the sophistication of Amos’s variations on these classical pieces.
In other words, Night of Hunters is likely to bore anyone who isn’t a classical music enthusiast or a member of Amos’s ever-dwindling legion of die-hard fans. Sure, the recording is absolutely faultless: Amos and Shenale ensure that every woodwind instrument rings with the purest of tones in support of Amos’s typically stunning piano work. But, as was the case with the Knife’s Tomorrow, In a Year opus, technical achievement can only carry an album of this sort so far if the music doesn’t offer listeners an “in.” Night of Hunters is a beautiful, smart record, but it’s also, by design, an obtuse and insular album by an artist who already skews pretty far in those directions.