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Amos (top) and Chapman/Handouts

Suffering souls

Music | Amos and Chapman fail in making their pain universal

Issue: "Homegrown terror," Dec. 5, 2009

At first the latest albums by the iconoclastic chanteuse Tori Amos and the contemporary-Christian stalwart Steven Curtis Chapman would seem to have little if anything in common.

An eccentric approach to Christmas and its attendant emotions, Amos' Midwinter Graces (Universal Republic) plays at times like a game of "gotcha," with well-known verses that end in trick refrains ("This, this is Christ the king / whom shepherds guard and angels sing" becomes "This is winter's gift. / This is what begins") and sneaky pagan interpolations ("as men of old have sung" in "Holly, Ivy and Rose" [aka "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming"] becomes "by ancient sibyls sung").

Chapman's Beauty Will Rise (Sparrow/EMI), by contrast, is disarmingly sincere in its triangulation of orthodox theology, lithe pop rock, and honest catharsis. Springing from Chapman's grief over the May 2008 death of the youngest of his three adopted daughters, the album's 12 songs achieve a paternal transparency on par with Eric Clapton's elegiac "Tears in Heaven."

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Midwinter Graces is considerably more opaque. Even the intimacy implied by the first-person point of view from which Amos sings her five original compositions fogs up with insular sentimentality ("A Silent Night with You"), feminist sentimentality ("Pink and Glitter"), or both ("Snow Angel").

And when Amos isn't drowning in emotion, she's choking on it. Reared in the United States and blessed with a striking voice, she has no reason to enunciate like a foreigner singing from slightly erroneous phonetic-English transcriptions of her lyrics. But she does, especially in "Jeanette, Isabella," in which "torches" comes out "toe-chez" each of the dozen or more times she pronounces it.

Eventually, the album's orthodox-heterodox Yuletide blend seems concocted to allow Amos to have her eggnog and drink it too, to get in on the "warmth" of the season while keeping her matriarchal distance-lest she discover, perhaps, that the source of the heat and the traditional reason for the season are one and the same.

Beauty Will Rise, on the other hand, while not a Christmas collection, will, by virtue of its November release date, certainly end up on the play lists of many Chapman fans between now and Dec. 25. Given its emphasis on the faithfulness of God, it's obviously relevant to a meditation on the graces of midwinter. (And, as those familiar with Chapman's vast body of work will have guessed, there's nothing at all wrong with his diction.)

So why do both Chapman's parental-grief album and Amos' holiday album feel similarly off-putting? Because both albums grow out of a pain so deep that neither Chapman nor Amos has yet figured out how to make that pain universal. Neither performer, in other words, has come up with the 21st-century musical Book of Job: a narrative so "bare bones" that anyone who's ever undergone inexplicably disproportionate suffering can imagine his own "flesh" on it.

Chapman's artistic failure is his over-adherence to the details of his daughter's death and brief life; the very specificity that enables us to sympathize with the tragedy also keeps us from empathizing with it. Songs such as "Just Have to Wait" and "February 20th" are moving, but what they move is us toward Chapman, not Chapman toward us.

As for what specific pain drives Amos, one can only guess. Early in her career it was a rape she underwent as a young adult, an ordeal finally put to rest, she has said, by marriage and motherhood. Nevertheless, there's something about Christmas-about the surrender of an archetypal woman to the Third Person of a masculine Trinity-with which she's still clearly not at ease.


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