Even taking into account Tori Amos’s enviable work ethic, news of her latest album came as something of a surprise. The prospect of a 2011 studio release seemed rather unlikely following the two-album assault of 2009′s Abnormally Attracted To Sin and the Christmas (sorry, Solstice) record Midwinter Graces, and with Amos still caught up in her ongoing collaboration with Samuel Adamson on stage musical ‘The Light Princess’ (which finally opens at the National Theatre next Spring) it might have been anticipated that Night Of Hunters would be a pared-down affair, one that curtailed her penchant for ambitious, large-scale projects. But if we know anything about her by now it’s that she’s not an artist who does things by halves, so it was not entirely surprising to learn that it would in fact be, to slightly paraphrase her own words, “a 21st century song cycle inspired by classical music themes spanning over four hundred years, telling a modern story through an exploration of complex musical and emotional subject matter.”
Commissioned by leading classical imprint Deutsche Grammophon, it’s a challenge that Amos has responded to with her customary zeal. Classical components have often surfaced in her music, of course, but this is her first album recorded through entirely acoustic means. Dispensing (temporarily, one assumes) with her regular bandmates, Night Of Hunters finds her collaborating with a select group of musicians including celebrated Polish string quartet Apollon Musagéte with clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer, oboist Nigel Shore, flautist Laura Lucas, bassoonist Peter Whelan and contrabassoonist Luke Whitehead, with arrangements overseen by long-time collaborator John Philip Shenale. Those who have deemed Amos’s recent albums to be too “busy” and unfocused, marred by a surfeit of songs and styles, will find Night Of Hunters to be her most cohesive and consistent album since 2002′s Scarlet’s Walk. Incorporating pieces by such noted composers as Bach, Schubert, Granados and Satie, Amos has fashioned a collection that feels entirely fresh but also of-a-piece with some of her recent projects, most notably Midwinter Graces, an album which similarly tinkered with “found” texts, adapting and amalgamating classic festive carols.
Recording in an exclusively acoustic context seems to have fired Amos up as an instrumentalist, and Night Of Hunters features some of her most expressive and dynamic piano playing (on record, at least) in years. The arresting ‘Shattering Sea’ is a case in point, shifting from bruised low-end piano chords into a dramatic, Bernard Herrmann-esque frenzy of strings, woodwind and furious arpeggios as Amos intones the killer opening line: “That is not my blood on the bedroom floor.” Always a keen anatomist of relationship conflict, Amos here deposits the listener right into the thick of it, the track’s turbulence brilliantly evoking the emotional fallout of “every brutal word” uttered by a couple in crisis. On an album on which her writing tends mainly towards the elemental (moons and suns, tides and waves, dusks and dawns, fires, skies and storms) ‘Shattering Sea’ sets out some of Night Of Hunters‘ key emotional themes (blame, self-betrayal, denial, the power of language), holding the earthly and the ethereal in compelling balance. The music breathes, ebbs and flows throughout, Shenale’s expert arrangements conveying intense intimacy and widescreen expansiveness as required.
This frontal attack is followed by the rumbling, pensive, rather Antony-esque ‘SnowBlind’, which marks the first of four guest vocals by Amos’s daughter Natashya Hawley. In Night Of Hunters‘ rather diffuse narrative, Amos casts Natashya as ‘Anabelle’, a voice of wisdom and guidance, and so she reappears at turning points in the album’s arc, whether encouraging our protagonist to partake of a magical elixir in ‘Cactus Practice’ or singing a riddling ode to adaptability on the brisk shapeshifter’s anthem ‘The Chase’. The slightly quaint ‘Cactus Practice’ seems likely to be the song that draws the most opprobrium, but it’s an intriguing piece on which crisp piano lines and burbling woodwinds provide an alluring setting to a subtly rebellious tale of “harmonic defiance.” Where Natashya really impresses comes with the album’s emotional crux, ‘Job’s Coffin’, a beautiful rallying cry to claim one’s own sovereignty that’s infused with disarming warmth and a little gospel spirit. The notion of an eleven year old singing lines like “There is a grid of disempowerment” may seem impossibly precious, but the young Miss Hawley pulls it off with total conviction.
The longest pieces here also sustain the momentum of the narrative, and the spellbinding, nine-minute ‘Battle Of Trees’ is a standout, all pizzicato strings, sawing cello and undulating piano, its lyrics turning the clock back a few thousand years to present the central couple as poet-warriors fighting on the same side in an epic war of words. An intoxicating, fluid chamber intensity is sustained on tracks such as the sensational ‘Fearlessness’ and the elegant ‘Nautical Twilight’, a beautifully structured piece that takes the listener from dusk to dawn, and its narrator into a pivotal realisation. Spinning off of Schubert’s ‘Sonata No. 20′, ‘Star Whisperer’ opens slowly with a lugubrious vocal before ducking into a thrilling instrumental movement. Similarly intricate in its arrangement is the ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’-referencing ‘Edge Of The Moon’, whose stately, restrained beginning gives way to a buoyant midsection that The Beatles would have been proud to call their own. The mellifluous ‘Your Ghost’ (on which Amos again pays lyrical homage to her favourite Liverpudlians) is soothing and conciliatory, and Amos’s delivery of the final verse is especially exquisite.
The title track, a vibrant duet for Amos and her niece Kelsey Dobyns that sounds like a lost outtake from the Stephen Sondheim musical ‘Into The Woods’, riffs rather brilliantly on Charles Laughton’s 1955 chiller ‘The Night Of The Hunter’, with “dark forces” out “to invade children’s dreams” challenged by a potent female energy. ‘Seven Sisters’ is a lovely, twinkling instrumental duet for clarinet and piano, while ‘Carry’ is one of those expansive, valedictory Amos ballad finales (think ’1000 Oceans’ via ‘Gold Dust’ via “Toast’) that we’ve almost come to take for granted over the years. Whether the song really succeeds in bringing together the album’s complicated narrative strands is debatable, but Amos did forewarn that the story was ongoing. Night Of Hunters may be bracingly unfashionable, but there’s a natural, organic quality to the album here that’s a welcome relief from the elements of contrivance found in some of her recent work. Reigning in some of the cutesy affectations that marred those recordings, Amos is in good, supple voice throughout, her vocals more sensitive to the complexities and nuances of the music. Operating on instinct once more, she builds on the work of past masters to develop an utterly distinctive vision of her own. The result is a rich, immersive record of beauty, danger and grace.
[Deutsche Grammophon; September 26, 2011]