It’s not very often that I purposely delay reviewing something, but when I first listened to Native Invader, I initially felt quite underwhelmed. There were four or five songs that jumped out immediately but the rest felt quite bland and meandering. For the lady whom I currently regard as my favourite musical artist, I was quite confused as being indifferent felt a bit more insulting that hating it. However, given time, Tori Amos’ latest album has really grown on me – so my first words of wisdom for everyone is this – Native Invader needs time.
What doesn’t need time though is the opening track. “Reindeer King” is utterly majestic and spellbinding. From the piano, the synth orchestration and rich layers of noises hiding under the surface, the song oozes atmosphere by the bucket. Tori’s voice rings every pound of emotion out of each line and it’s among her very best works. “Wings” feels sonically like a sister to Flavour. The chilled out beats, and throw back to 80’s guitar picking also makes me think of the remastered Y Kant Tori Read, which Tori has over the years reintroduced to everyone as a good album (which was clear all along). It’s almost single worthy as its one of the more direct tracks on the album, but its prettiness belies the lyrics the track contains – and its that point that I think I struggled with upon the first few listens.
Tori Amos has joined PJ Harvey in the role of World Observer with this album. She will simply lay out thoughts and ideas from both sides of the fence – politically and emotionally – but not particularly push you to a conclusion. “Wings” does this perfectly in a political sense because whilst Tori sings of creating a safe space, you hear both empathy and bitter sarcasm for the idea – and I think depending on your situation and mood – you can choose either option – and I love that ambiguity and personalisation. This is the level of detail you need to go to if you’re mining for the real nectar of Native Invader, but if you really have to work for it. When I took this approach to other songs, I found the album almost like a soul search party for one!
“Broken Arrow” is more pointed as she creates Lady Liberty as a real being. It’s also where the album finds its groove. If I would describe the audio of this – I’d call it Abnormally Scarlet’s Little Girls Posse. The organ and guitar feature heavily – and this track is the wah pedal track. It’s got a growl in its finale but as you can hear the percussion is programmed and not played live, it loses a bit of its depth. “Cloud Riders” is the definition of a grower. It’s balmy late summer chilled groove its a lovely change of pace, but its more about the acoustic guitar than the organ, as well as its dreamlike quality and so as a single, it doesn’t hit any of Tori’s core audience. However, give it time and you’ll get the smokey mountain feels, the ideas of making peace and that actually if you free your mind from its fleshy prison, you too can be someone else’s saviour, it all clicks into place. Being quietly optimistic is a new dress for Amos to wear, and she wears it well.
“Up The Creek” however is far more pointed as the lavish electronica clad track see’s Tori and daughter Tash discuss global resources and its tipping point. The pace, speed, complexity and tone is some of the darkest of the album and its furious. It’s great that Tori is happy to rock out the piano still and whilst it’s almost a completely new genre for her to take on, it works fantastically. It was this kind of statement like wake up shake I was expecting throughout the album – and that’s also why I was confused on initial listens. In contrast the theatrical “Breakaway” returns back to core Tori and piano territory for a beautiful ballad. Whilst it’s a comment on war, relationships and possibly country politics, I also think its a comment of her play The Light Princess, which was taken off stage way after an extremely short run for no obvious reason.
“Wildwood” brings us some psych-rock in the more ethereal form. It’s one of those songs that initially you could think “aww, that’s quite cute” initially, the lyrics delve far back into heritage and having your own pilgrimage of sorts. In many ways, this is Tori’s retro rock album (Elton John and Beatles had a baby anyone?), and its this style of track is exactly why I push that way. Pushing the cute level up to “ouch my teeth hurt” is “Chocolate Song” which feels too minimalist to sell its message of words can be weapons, especially when the track is saccharine sweet. I’m not the first person to say it, but Thornton’s or Cadbury’s – snap this track up. It’s easily my least favourite on the album, but I think it’s because it feels out-of-place thematically.
“Bang” is another standout however, as Tori goes all Carl Sagan on us, and in an almost Kate Bush like lyrical turn, this goes right back to the science of life and space. The track has edge, bite and a fierce pulse to it. It’s also one of the few times in the album where Amos uses her lower register, and it really helps each of its many segments separate themselves out. The finale is great, and as like much of the album, shows how far Tori has come to let all the instruments of a band play with her in full integration. “Climb” is a track of understated brilliance. After all the complexity of Bang, the simple melody and accompaniment is the kind of thing that makes you auto-tear. Lyrically twinned with Selkie, “Bats” is like a pinch of The Beekeeper thrown in towards the end of the album. The mesh of sound that two chords of guitar and fluent electric piano can make is gorgeous, and the melody is almost entirely made from the vocal performance. It’s breezy but with a punch and a surprise favourite of mine.
“Benjamin” is perhaps the most overtly political track (not counting bonus tracks) and also where I bring my Elton John style references from. “Those pimps from Washington, selling the rape of America as they attack Juliana” could not be more direct if it’s tried. It neatly ties up the activist in Tori and also in us too as we can waiting to sign up to fight back through the lyrical push. However, the final comment then brings everything that’s said before into perspective. “Mary’s Eyes”, a song about her mother’s stroke and inability to communicate is a symphonic masterpiece. It’s off-kilter pace and themes match up with the opening track, but whilst the world is seemingly falling to utter chaos, as felt out with its piano tick-tocking moments, ultimately its about the people we love and care about. It’s about what gets the heart booming, what brings that connection to get us back together – and that could just bring us all back together. The bowed glass in this track is absolutely sublime and I hope Tori works with this rich arrangement types more in the future.
Two bonus tracks are on the special edition. “Upside Down 2” is a positive track and perhaps its biggest clue is in its title. Whereas original b-side Upside Down had the lyric “I’m ok when everything is not ok” – this track actively now tells you to turn that frown upside down. It shows where the singer/songwriter is now she is in her 50’s and what she appreciates most. “Russia” is fantastically dark as Amos tells both sides of the political argument that we need to build a bridge and activate our Native Invader. I think this track should be on the standard version of the album as its key to the whole narrative. It’s also worthwhile saying that the physical version has the tracklist in a completely different order, and song lyrics missing on the booklet, although the artwork is eerily excellent.
So – do I recommend Native Invader? Absolutely – but you must bring all your brain to appreciate it. As an observer, Tori has it nailed. Once you then lay your own interpretations to each of the songs then you’ll grow to really enjoy and treasure the album – but that road can be a long one.
Recommended Track : Reindeer King