Island is the latest album from Oscar-nominated composer and songwriter Owen Pallett. Almost entirely acoustic, Island begins with 13 darkened chords, and was recorded live at Abbey Road Studios with the London Contemporary Orchestra. The introduction is sound of waking up alone, and on the shore of a strange land. What follows is a shimmering and luscious orchestral album that draws across the full breadth of Pallett’s discography, from Heartland’s Technicolor to the glittering, fingerpicked guitar that marked Pallett’s first records with their trio, Les Mouches.
Being a teenage Tori Amos fan in the ‘90s was, of course, the greatest. A strong — the strongest ever! — run of albums with no fan consensus on a favourite, as Tori fandom equally praises each of the Great Four: 1992’s Little Earthquakes, 1994’s Under the Pink, 1996’s Boys for Pele and 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel. Plus there was a plethora of EPs and CD singles boasting b-sides so worth it that I’d have dreams of finding a copy of the UK pressing of the “Crucify” single in the used bin, so that I might finally hear the recorded version of “Here. In My Head,” a song only heard in North America at high school talent shows thanks to its appearance The Bee Sides, one of her many sheet music collections. Added to this: Tori’s frequent nearly-solo concerts where mothers and daughters would hold hands and sets would routinely feature surprise covers and deep cuts. Plus she attracted a hugely progressive (for the ‘90s) and understanding online community, replete with meet-ups and listening parties and support groups. Tori, like Trent Reznor, attracted all the queers and weirdos who were too young, too square, or too isolated for punk or hardcore.
1999’s To Venus and Back came out shortly after I started college (the same day as Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile, actually) and marked the end of my obsession. Whether it was due to the withering pituitary gland in my 19-year-old head or the new thrill of having moved from country to city, or — forgive me — a drop in quality in the music is irrelevant. But there were some changes. Tori’s piano playing, as a soloist, runs like a river, flapping in the wind like a Liberty scarf. From Venus onward, the near-permanent hovering presence of a backbeat-loving rhythm section only boxed her, crated her, squared her — especially when compared to the spiky piano-and-kit partnership heard in Tori’s finest heiress, Fiona Apple. By the time 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk arrived, aptly hailed as a departure, I was ready to downgrade my status as a fan. Tori Amos had already saved my life; job done. I subsequently gave my CD singles collection to a girl I was seeing, a newly converted fan.
The admission of “downgrading one’s fan status” sounds snooty and shitty, but there is happiness here. More like: I’m a satisfied fan. This woman produced four miracle records: she is in the canon. My twice-through listens of her subsequent albums have felt loving and familiar, letters from a godmother. By the time she put out 2011’s Night of Hunters, which featured vocal adaptations of famous classical instrumentals, I felt few, if any, emotional tugs, taking instead immense professional pleasure in the high quality of the audio engineering, the dynamism of the orchestral arrangements, her vocal performance and the choice of microphone.
With all that in mind, I expected Unrepentant Geraldines to sound like further “postcards from a life of contentment.” I was looking forward to receiving these postcards. I wasn’t entirely wrong, as, on many of these tracks, the sonic landscapes are bucolic. The production recalls Mark Knopfler solo records: piano mixed low, the vocals mixed high, bass and drums all woof, no transients. Some of the details recall St. Vincent, stereo-panned Tori singing call-and-response with her mono’d lead vocals. Her voice is miraculous here. Better than ever? Yes. But aside from this-and-that, it is, production-wise, a straightforward affair.
That said, for the first time since American Doll Posse’s “Dragon” I’m ready to put some (many!) of these songs in my hope chest. These are enormous songs, they wrestle my adult impassivity to the ground. And these are adult songs. While “Promise” has all the honesty and forthright admissions of a pure pop lyric, the song is Tori and her daughter Tash exchanging mother-daughter vows: “Promise not to say/that I’m getting too old,” their voices joining together like ivy and brick; it is devastating.
With its increasingly swelling piano rising like a heated ocean and its reflective lyrics (“I’m working my way back to me again/Not every girl is a pearl”), “Oysters” is Tori doing what she does best: stepping on the sustain pedal and letting her fingers go. The beautiful “Selkie” is “Song to the Siren” rewritten with the mythical creature as captive instead of captor, harmonies expanding endlessly outward, droplets on the face of a pool. A windy instrumental bridge (the title track), a gloriously acrobatic vocal turn (“Invisible Boy”) — there are too many little details to effectively isolate here.
But most of all, the first track “America” is an all-timer for Tori, in which the “Other” America is imagined as a stoic, law-student vision of Columbia. The chorus rises and falls like a fountain and has been with me since first listen. This album will need, and will get, many more listens for me to unpack it. In the meantime, I’m a trembling mess.