16 October 2006

I Post Song Lyrics Sometimes: Northern Lad.

Yeah, it's Ophelia all over again

Tori Amos is a problematic figure in pop music . Her first album (though not actually her first), Little Earthquakes, somehow managed to stand astride the barrier between the personal (and therefore, the political, as in feminist) and the popular (as in pop). Strangely piano-driven, the songs still had a hook that grabbed people, both despite and because of the lyrics. But then the words were conveyed by the most wonderful instrument of her voice, which is one of the odder confections to be found on the charts in the last fifteen years. She gasps, she grunts, she takes breaths in weird places, she willfully mispronounces and extends words in order to make them fit the arc of the music.

People who don't know Kate Bush dismiss Amos as a Bush imitator instead of understanding that she pays a deep homage extending the crazy space that Kate Bush more or less invented in pop music at the age of seventeen. Bush is essentially a narrativist; she is almost always telling a story, often derived from literature or biography, but transformed by her own strange take on that tale and whatever musical idioms are nagging at her attention. They are both crazy, brilliant bitches, but the real thing that Amos learned from Bush, in a strange counter-intuitive reverse-alphabetical order, is that when you personalize your work it takes on a powerful universal application. If you're passionate enough about what you're doing and you have the capacity to realize that vision, you can approach a song as deeply embedded in the popular conciousness as "Landslide" (or "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "
'97 Bonnie And Clyde") and take the most remarkable and personal ownership of it.

This song, "Northern Lad," was on Amos' fourth album. After
Little Earthquakes, she released her "sell-out" effort, In the Pink, which seemed so calculated and under-done compared to the earlier disc. Then she brought out Boys for Pele--the album art for which depicted her as a hillbilly woman burning a mattress in one photograph and suckling a piglet in another--a fearsome declaration of independence from the market that was only underscored by her use of the antiquated harpsichord. This is an album so intense that I cannot listen to the whole things in one sitting. The title refers to boys being sacrificed to a volcano goddess (as opposed to girls), and has provovatively titled songs including, "Father Lucifer," "Professional Widow," "Muhammad my friend," "Agent Orange," and "Putting the damage on." All good songs, but the album is so full of rage and forgiveness that it's almost unbearable. After this she released her first disc with a band--this from a woman who was content to be responsible for all the sounds in her music. It's a great album, containing the best and a some of the worst of what she's capable of and yet is a breakthrough. She pairs, implicitly anyway, a racous song about the undue, damaging influence of a woman on a man (it could be a woman, it couldbe anyone) called "She's Your Cocaine"--a terrific, funky number--with a song called "Northern Lad." I wish I had the ability to upload the thing [Ed. Note: I now can, and I have --Feb. 2014] so you could hear what she's up to since I find this one of the most canny and moving pieces of music I've ever encountered. I know, it's always difficult to hear someone else speak in absolutes of any kind, but you have to understand two things: the refrain has an earthy and sexual logic that astonishes: "If you could see me now, /Girls, you've got to know/When it's time to turn the page/When you're only wet because of the rain"; the second thing is the way she sings this. The tune builds in the most lovely subtle way so that by the time she repeats the refrain, it becomes the most mournful keening. Maybe it's the image of rain in the song, but her voice takes on this elemental aspect, like a storm hitting or breaking. It is the sound of a voice describing the sky filling with light, and she does this without the words but only the tone, the grain, of her voice, which dissolves from this incandescent cry of loss into a weeping tremulo. It kills me every time I hear it. This sound she makes is an example of the sublime.

And now for the song.
Northern Lad

Had a northern lad,
Well, not exactly had, but
He moved like the sunset
God who painted that (there).
First he loved my accent;
How his knees could bend.
I thought we'd be ok,
Me and my molasses.

But I feel something is(n't) wrong,
But (like) I feel this cake still isn't done.
And don't say that you don't.

And if you
Could see me now,
'Said if you
Could see me now,
Girls, you've got to know
When it's time to turn the page,
When you're only wet
Because of the rain,
Because of,'Cause of the rain,'Cause of...

He don't show much these days.
It gets so fucking cold.
I loved his secret places
But I can't go anymore.
"You change like sugar cane,"
Says my northern lad, well,
I guess you go too far
When pianos try to be guitars. 'N'

I feel the west in you, but I
Feel it falling apart too.
And don't say that you don't.

And if you could see me now,
'Said if you could see me now.
Girls, you've got to know
When it's time to turn the page,
When you're only wet
Because of the rain,
When you're only wet
Because of the rain,
Because of,'Cause of the rain,Because of,'Cause of the rain,'Cause of
The rain

"Northern Lad," music and lyrics by Tori Amos, on From the Choirgirl Hotel, 1998.


Brian said...

What a great review of the style and work of Tori Amos. I couldn't agree more.

Demosthenes said...

Thank you my friend for this song. Both the lyrics and the way in which they are sung are intensely personal to her which cuts directly to my heart. As I’ve listened to the song, it began to show roots in an older tradition, that of Billie Holiday’s, where the voice interprets the emotions of the lyrics and feels them deeply, putting them in the context of the singer’s heart and emotional memory, creating an non-replicatable experience. The body, the vocal chords, the lips, the lungs, the caverns of the body and face where sounds resonate all combine to tell the story of loss, pain, misfortune, and ultimately of love. Always love. I could say more but I don’t want to over analyze something so purely feeling.