Before we get into the meat of this review, some background into my highly personal, emotional investment in the career of Tori Amos. Consider yourselves prewarned: this shit’s about to get self-indulgent.

I am in no way exaggerating when I say that, as a socially awkward, acne-riddled, 13-year-old boy, who attended a single sex school, discovering Tori Amos was a formative experience. At the time, I was heavily into Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and Tool; the holy trinity of pretentious white boy angst. It was through Tool frontman, Maynard James Keenan’s association with Amos, that I decided to pick up a copy of 1996’s Boys for Pele (he duets with her on a live version of ‘Muhammad, My Friend’ off that very album). Suffice to say, it blew my underdeveloped male mind, and I quickly picked up Little Earthquakes and Under The Pink, and listened to all three compulsively.

I thought I was into “extreme” music with my Trent “I Want To Fuck You Like An Animal” Reznor, and my ‘Stinkfist,’ and ‘Prison Sex’. But one listen to the harrowing a capella account of sexual assault, ‘Me And A Gun’, put things into perspective. On those first three albums, Amos had such a virtuoso gift for dynamics on her Bösendorfer, as well as a knack of combining out-there lyrical abstractions with concrete statements that were shocking and humorous in their bluntness. Case in point:

“Those beautiful boys
Christian boys…
So you can make me cum,
that doesn’t make you Je-ee-sus!”

For a teenager who had an innate distrust of masculine posturing, but no articulated conception of what feminism really meant, Amos was a guiding light; a candid exposure to a woman’s experience, a confrontation with female sexuality, and a mirror held up to the patriarchy sitting on my shoulder, shaping me without my conscious knowledge. But beyond that, the sheer, unbridled emotion of those albums - the vulnerability, the sadness, the compassion, the anger, the bitterness, the defiant strength - all of that provided comfort and an escape; especially during a time when I was dealing with the emotional fallout of discovering that my birth mother had committed suicide due to postpartum depression. Amos is one of a handful of artists who I would, without hyperbole, credit with saving my life.

Revisiting her back catalogue as preparation for this review has therefore been an equal parts comforting, and discomfiting experience. Those first three albums are so tied in with the person I was in my teens, that listening to them is a positively Proustian experience. With a flourish on the ivories, or a quivering vocal line, I am transported into a past self, stripped of the mental defences I have carefully constructed over the last fifteen years. Anything post-Boys for Pele (and parts of From The Choirgirl Hotel), however, does not exert the same fierce emotional tug. Owen Pallett (also amongst that handful of life-saving artists) articulated the experience of being a Tori Amos fan, better than I can, in his review of Unrepentant Geraldines for The Talkhouse, but I would say that I too checked out as an obsessive fan with To Venus and Back, and stopped buying (or even listening to) her albums after 2002’s post-9/11, state-of-the-nation, road-trip album, Scarlet’s Walk. Amos had fallen prey to the need to fill every available minute of a compact disc’s capacity, and so the prospect of diving into The Beekeeper, American Doll Posse, or Abnormally Attracted to Sin, struck me as more trouble than it was probably worth. Of course, in listening to all of her albums (and the expansive deluxe reissues of the hallowed trio) in the run up to this review, I have discovered some absolute keepers amongst the filler.

2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines was roundly, and rightly, greeted as a return to form, albeit with some reservations. You see, a considerable majority of Amos’ post-Choirgirl output (her Christmas album, Midwinter Graces, and Night of Hunters being the notable exceptions) has been plagued by thin, adult-contemporary, pop-rock production choices, dated electronics, and an overemphasis on full-band arrangements, with an attendant, unfortunate relegation of her greatest strength: her sheer, unbridled dynamism on the piano. Native Invader (yes, we’re getting to it at long, long last), does not, unfortunately, constitute a break from this trend, but, does, like Unrepentant Geraldines before it, occasionally channel the Tori Amos that once meant so much to me.

In what proves to be a blessing and a curse, Native Invader opens with its strongest track. ‘Reindeer King’ feels like a return to the epically sweeping aesthetic of Under The Pink closer, ‘Yes, Anastasia’, and it’s a thrill to hear Amos let loose without being hemmed in by a steady backbeat. For someone who was trepidatious about the production on this album, the track is a revelation. Those orchestral swells, the churning, droning cello that adds a touch of menace, the icy clarity of Amos’ voice; all of these elements combine to gorgeous effect. The song is so evocative of winter, it practically gives me chills. It also features one of Amos’ best choruses in years with “Got to get you back to you, get you back to you” (possibly a callback to the refrain from ‘Oysters’ from her previous album).

Of course, there are other high points to Native Invader. Among these is ‘Breakaway’, a voice and piano ballad that briefly recalls Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day', and then pulls off the delicate balancing act of alternately praising its subject (presumably Samuel Adamson, who worked on the ill-fated musical The Light Princess with Amos) and expressing seething resentment at those who didn’t support their artistic vision. The back-end of the album is, perhaps counter-intuitively, considerably stronger than the front half. ‘Bang’ is a rousing number, which refutes the political right’s anti-immigration stance by asserting that we “are all made of stars.” It’s kind of trite and heavy-handed, I’ll admit, but Amos just takes it further and further until she’s evoking the titular big bang, getting blinded by the flash of light, and listing off elements from the periodic table over a colossal 70s piano-rock backing. It’s delightfully over the top, and adds a heavy dose of much-needed drama to the proceedings. ‘Climb’, ‘Bats’ and ‘Benjamin’ offer a consistent, quietly remarkable, run of songs, that showcase Amos’ gift for crafting beautiful melodies, whilst ensuring the production remains relatively tasteful and unobtrusive. ‘Benjamin’ even manages to fit in a few classic Tori-isms in the vocal delivery, whilst ‘Climb’ sees Amos revisiting themes of religion and female oppression. The latter also features the line, “Only when you're whole can you forgive/ But it's a long long climb.” This takes on an emotionally devastating tenor when you consider Amos’ personal history. The album ends on ‘Mary’s Eyes’, another backbeat-free piano-and-strings number that plays to Amos’ strengths. It’s a moving paean to her mother - who recently suffered a stroke that left her unable to speak - and touches on the role of religion (and music) in providing comfort. Most pertinently, ‘Mary’s Eyes’ adds a personal dimension to the theme of giving voice to the voiceless, which ties in with the political motifs that run through the record.

Ah, politics. During the promotional roll-out of Native Invader, much was made of how it represented Amos’ response to the fallout of the 2016 presidential election, with a specific emphasis on the administration’s stance on climate change, as well as upon the experience of the First Nation's population. I don’t know about you, but when an artist who is on their 15th studio album and has made their name with emotional frankness, announces that they have made a political album, my first thought is “uh-oh.” And, unfortunately, for the most part, the moments when Amos weighs in on current events come off as clumsy and a little too on-the-nose. On ‘Benjamin’ she calls out the “pimps in Washington, selling the rape of America”; on ‘Broken Arrow’, she asks if we are “emancipators or oppressors of Lady Liberty”; and on ‘Up The Creek’, there’s a call for the “militia of the mind” to rise up against those “climate blind.” The Deluxe edition of the album even ends with a song called ‘Russia’, which features Amos asking, “Is Stalin on your shoulder?” You can see what Amos is going for, but you end up longing for a little more abstraction.

So, I’ve covered the parts of the album that recall prime Tori Amos and have concluded that there are, indisputably, some great moments on this album, and the whole thing is bookended by two of the best tracks she’s made since her 90s heyday. Unfortunately (and this is the part of the review it pains me to write), there are a number of songs on Native Invader, which, either through production choices or other elements, simply do not make the grade. The transition from the peak of ‘The Reindeer King’ to ‘Wings’, for example, is so jarring in its shift down in quality it makes you wonder if you’re still listening to the same album. The production sounds instantly dated (I mean, are those drums on the chorus literally a Casio keyboard preset?), and, lyrically, the song builds towards the cringe-worthy declaration (regardless of how well-intentioned a sentiment it is), “sometimes, big boys they need to cry.” ‘Broken Arrow’ is completely sabotaged by Mark Hawley’s savage abuse of his wah-wah pedal, the awkward chorus of ‘Chocolate Song’ makes me want to jump up and skip the track, whilst ‘Cloud Riders’ and ‘Wildwood’ are simply too middle-of-the-road to rouse the listener’s attention. Finally, most of these tracks feature studio touches that serve to distract rather than augment.

The one aesthetic outlier on the album is ‘Up The Creek’, which is this album’s equivalent of ‘16 Shades of Blue’. It incorporates beat programming, frenzied orchestral runs, call-and-response vocals from Amos and her daughter, and climaxes with a thrilling section during which Amos goes Super Saiyan on the piano. It’s the one song on Native Invader that delivers the urgency that a purportedly political and defiant album ought really to possess in spades. ‘Up The Creek’ would be one of the highlights of the album, if it weren’t let down, like so much of Amos’ songwriting on Native Invaders, by the production. Those beats sound cheap and thin, the strings too synthetic. Whenever I listen to ‘Up The Creek’, I can’t help but imagine how different it could have been, with the likes of John Congleton, for instance, behind the boards.

It’s telling that all of the best songs on Native Invader are those that foreground Amos’ piano playing in tandem with that miraculous voice, and dispense with the inherent restrictions of the backing band. Back in the late 90s, Amos attempted to shed the piano-girl image thrust upon her by her record label by adopting a full band sound. It was a development that resulted in some interesting experimentation and a dozen or so classic songs, but also a hell of a lot of bloat. For some, Amos has been lost in the artistic wilderness since the turn of the millennium. Even I, as someone who, to some extent, owes his life to the woman, had written her off prior to 2014's Unrepentant Geraldines. Going through her back catalogue has exposed the heartlessness of that assessment, the ingratitude of it. I’ve come to realise that I owe Amos my attention. However, I’m not sure if this level of attention (i.e. providing a published critical assessment of her work) is necessarily the healthiest thing for me. You see, I approached the album proactively searching for positives with an attendant weight of hopeful expectation, and, beyond the highlights discussed, have come away, somewhat dejected, with a handful of negatives. Emotional investment always leaves you vulnerable. For me, Native Invader is a step back from Unrepentant Geraldines, but still boasts enough quality to suggest that she has another stellar album in her. I’ll be listening. I’ll just let someone else review that one.

P.S. John Congleton, if you’re reading this, hit @toriamos up on Twitter.