It’s a strange beast, the covers album. Many talented artists, and Duran Duran, have attempted to fill an entire album with cover versions and the vast majority have come seriously unstuck. Even Elvis Costello and David Bowie didn’t come away completely unscathed. So, it’s with apprehension that one approaches the new album by Tori Amos, an album of songs “written by men about women and delivered from a female perspective”. It comes as quite a shock therefore to discover on listening that this is Amos’ best work since her landmark debut Little Earthquakes.
No stranger to the idiosyncratic cover version (a radical restructuring of Smells Like Teen Spirit was an early B-side), Amos has chosen a variety of artists to cover from the predictable (Tom Waits, Neil Young) to the frankly bizarre (Eminem, Slayer). For anybody who is familiar with her music, it comes as no surprise to learn that the vast majority of these songs are stripped down versions, with Amos’ piano and voice dominating. What is truly impressive however, is how she has taken these twelve songs and made them truly her own.
Lou Reed‘s New Age kicks off proceedings and rolls along nicely, but nothing prepares you for the next track, a version of Eminem‘s notorious 97 Bonnie And Clyde. With just a piano and Amos’ breathy vocals, she sings the song from the perspective of the doomed mother locked in the trunk, listening to her husband talking to the child. The result is utterly chilling, and surpasses the original by some distance. Another eerie experience is listening to Slayer’s Raining Blood, especially in the light of the recent tragic events in America. Intense piano chords strike, while Amos sings of “awaiting reprisals… raining blood from the lacerated sky”. It’s disturbingly prophetic, and sadly renders her remarkable version almost unlistenable.
Other triumphs include a starkly beautiful version of Tom Waits’ classic Time, and a pretty faithful retelling of Joe Jackson‘s often overlooked Real Men. This isn’t to say that every track on here is an unqualified success. Amos makes a real hash of Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold, replacing the original’s frail beauty with a cod-metallic backing that does the song no favours at all. Even worse, she completely ruins Happiness Is A Warm Gun. The Beatles‘ original had a real sense of menace and sardonic humour. Amos punctuates her version with well meaning, but clumsy, samples of news reports about John Lennon‘s shooting and apologists from the National Rifle Association. This may have been tolerated, but she manages to stretch it out for ten minutes. Enough already.
In general though, this is a real return to form from Tori Amos. Recent albums have seen her lose her way somewhat, with her increasingly bizarre lyrics failing to be tied to many memorable songs. This covers album was an inspired move, and in one move she seems to have got her career back on track. Maybe Simon Le Bon should have a word?