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‘To Venus And Back’: How Tori Amos Entered A New Orbit
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In Depth

‘To Venus And Back’: How Tori Amos Entered A New Orbit

A gloriously spacey trip, Tori Amos’ ‘To Venus And Back’ album found the singer exploring ‘the conscious and unconscious feminine’.


A two-disc collection of new and live material, Tori Amos’ fifth album, To Venus And Back, began its orbit unexpectedly. On the eve of the millennium, Amos was ready for a holiday after years of relentless recording and touring since her seismic solo debut, Little Earthquakes, came out in 1992. “I was playing clubs since I was 13,” she told talk show host Charlie Rose. “[Touring] is part of what makes me up. My soup.” The plan was to release a live album and a disc of rarities and B-sides, then take a break at her beach house for the summer. But the muses had other ideas. Amos ended up instead with an album of 11 new songs, as well as a disc featuring the best live performances from her recent Plugged Tour for 1998’s from the choirgirl hotel album.

Listen to ‘To Venus And Back’ here.

“The songs said, ‘We’re from Venus. Sit down.’”

As Amos tells it, the title for the new album arrived before the songs, while she enjoyed “a really good bottle of Corton-Charlemagne” with a couple of pals. She revealed to VH1: “[My friend] Natalie was the one who looked at me and said, ‘You’d go to Venus and back if you could.’ And I said, ‘Wherever that is.’ Of course, we know about the planet… but there’s also the mythology of Venus, which is the feminine. So it just came to me.” Once she had a title, “the songs started to show up and say, ‘We’re from Venus. Sit down.’”

“This is the fastest one we’ve ever done,” Amos told Wall Of Sound of the album’s recording sessions. “Sometimes it just takes you longer to do something; you can’t hear it or see it, and you’re kind of half-present. But… she was so seductive none of us could sleep – none of us wanted to. It was like some Dionysian frenzy. We didn’t want to stop.”

“Divide and conquer a person with themselves: that’s control”

Bookended by its two most memorable – and starkly contrasting – singles, Bliss and 1000 Oceans, To Venus And Back is a gloriously spacey trip that sees the artist continue the exploration of electronica she’d begun with from the choirgirl hotel. “Instead of ‘Father, who art in heaven’ it’s, ‘Father I killed my monkey,’” Amos said to Rose of the iconic line that opens both Bliss and the album as a whole, “because my father [was a] Methodist minister, my grandparents [were] Church Of God ministers.”

The phrasing also speaks to Crucify, the first song on Amos’ debut album, and another challenge to patriarchal Christianity: “You’re just an empty cage, girl, if you kill the bird.” The choice to kill one’s monkey can be read as a way of taking back control. Or is it a sly reference to masturbation – a path to finding “a bliss/Of another kind”? As usual, Amos lets the listener decide.

“It was very much about the two Marys, Magdalene and the Mother Mary, who were divided in the psyche,” she said of the song. “The Mother Mary was severed from her sexuality, and Mary Magdalene was severed from her spirituality and her wisdom… This whole thing of ‘divide and conquer’ – it’s a joke, really. Divide and conquer a village? No, divide and conquer a person with themselves: that’s control.’”

Lyrically, this is classic Amos, who found fame challenging the church fathers of her youth on Little Earthquakes. However, the sounds of the two albums couldn’t be more different. If Little Earthquakes belongs on our planet, with its raw, stripped-back aesthetic, voice and piano taking centre stage, the electronic washes and sonic effects of To Venus And Back carry the listener much further from home.

“Venus represents to me the conscious and unconscious feminine”

The tour de force opener sees Amos’ thundering Bösendorfer breaking through the rush of wind, as if we’re taking off for a trip into space, and the search for bliss – on one’s own terms – pervades the album in the “eternal wanting” of Spring Haze, the “rolling and unrolling” of Lust, or in the epic Dātura, which runs for more than eight minutes as Amos lists the plants in her garden in Florida, including the titular hallucinogen, the sole survivor of Hurricane Irene. “I’ve had different elixirs over the years but there isn’t anything that really takes hold [like the piano],” Amos admitted to Charlie Rose.

There’s darkness, too, in an album that explores “the shadows and the shadow world”. “Venus represents to me the conscious and unconscious feminine, so both things have to exist,” Amos told Dave Holmes in an interview for 120 Minutes. “Not just the love space and all that orbits that, but the darkest places when you’re severed from your heart.” In Juárez, she remembers the hundreds of female maquiladora workers murdered in the desert surrounding that city on the US-Mexico border. “No angel came,” Amos repeats in a haunting, fragmentary song which sounds – surely no accident – like something broken.

In the gentler Josephine, with its appropriately military drumbeat, Amos considers the wife of Napoleon as her husband surveys burning Moscow, while the search for transcendence continues in the sex and drugs of Glory Of The 80’s – a song that, Amos has said, celebrates “the honesty of the decadence of that decade”.

“That dream was very special to me”

If the powerhouse Bliss wakes the listener up for their trip to Venus, the gorgeous 1000 Oceans, which came to Amos in a dream, is the soothing lullaby after the journey. Satisfyingly, the final word of the song and album is “home”. The piano returns to centre-stage in a ballad about grief that spoke to Amos’ new husband when he lost his father. As she recalled, in a 1999 interview with the German newspaper Die Zeit, “After Mark heard the song, he always came to me, sat down next to the piano and said, ‘Please, play that song again.’ And I played it to him. Through that we got in contact once again. I took him back from that other galaxy he was in a million miles away from me. So that dream was very special to me. It renewed the connection between Mark and me.”

Released on 20 September 1999, To Venus And Back peaked at No.12 on the Billboard 200, reached No.22 on the UK Top 40 and received two Grammy nominations. Its 13-track second disc, Venus Live, Still Orbiting, performed by the same team of musicians who recorded the album (Steve Caton on guitar, Jon Evans on bass and Matt Chamberlain on drums), marked Amos’ first official live release. Highlights include takes on many of the best Tori Amos songs[], among them Cornflake Girl, Precious Things and Girl, alongside delectable fan favourites Sugar and Cooling making their “official” debuts, and an epic full-band version of Waitress, which concluded all the shows on the tour.

Ready for another trip? Check out our best Tori Amos songs.

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