Tori Amos‘ ‘Little Earthquakes’ – released twenty years ago today – felt like the quintessential debut album. A real document of someone’s life. With songs about her mother, father, sex, religion, abuse and mental illness, it stood and shook as a monument to a life lived. Here was a woman taking stock of all her experiences to date and expressing them in the most magical, yet visceral, way possible.
Reeling from the failure of her Y Kant Tori Readsoft-rock band (dodgy barnet alert!), Amos had recorded most of the tracks for ‘Little Earthquakes’ already, giving Atlantic Records a demo in 1990. The label agonised over the final tracklisting and choice of singles. The singer was shunted between Bangles producer Davitt Sigerson in LA, Tears For Fears producer Ian Stanley in London, and finally then-boyfriend Eric Rosse.
The version that was finally released incorporated all these versions, but you can’t tell that by listening to it. It doesn’t sound stitched together. It stands as a complete whole, revealing itself like an autobiography.
It opens with ‘Crucify’, a bitter recollection of a childhood brought up under the cloud of Catholic guilt. The lyrics stuck the boot in (“I’ve been raising up my hands, drop another nail in. Just what God needs/One more victim“) to organised religion, but Amos also upbraided herself for remaining under its power (“My heart is sick of being in chains.”)
The idea of “chains” is one that’s explored obsessively on the album. In the next track ‘Girl’, Amos casts herself as the heroine of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, balancing the expectations of society with her own (“She’s been everybody else’s girl/Maybe one day she’ll be her own”).
Similarly, in ‘Silent All These Years’, she’s searching through the clamour of everyone else’s voices for her own. The double header of ‘Winter’ and ‘Mother’ find her alternatively running into the arms of her parents and bristling against their ideals of who she should be (“I walked into your dream/And now I’ve forgotten how to dream my own dream/You are the clever one aren’t you”).
But perhaps ‘Little Earthquakes’ most stunning moment was ‘Me And A Gun’, a revelatory song of unflinching honesty. Singing acapella about a rape she suffered, we’re driven to exactly that place, time and feeling. The stream-of-consciousness intensity she summons during this song almost feels like a piece of guerrilla theatre, but perhaps that is because it’s so shockingly real.
Amos’ piano confessionals and theatrical sensibility made many cite her as Kate Bush’s natural successor. That didn’t quite come to pass. Post-‘Little Earthquakes’, she followed a slightly different path. You can, however, draw a line between ‘Little Earthquakes’ and the likes of Alanis Morrisette and Fiona Apple, but also the punkier likes of Hole and riot grrrl.
She would never top ‘Little Earthquakes’ but she didn’t need to. It’s a monumental confessional masterpiece.