I was surprised to see that somehow, without noticing, it had been 20 years since I first encountered Tori Amos through Under The Pink, and continued what is my most enduring affection for a single artist through eleven subsequent albums, not to mention box sets, rare B-sides, and numerous wonderful gigs. It's not been an easy journey, and the law of diminishing returns has meant that much of the last decade has been spent grumbling about the quantity over quality with regards to her material, trying to balance out those gems among the less deserving material that would have made a passable B-side but didn't deserve album placing.
Generally speaking, when a less-is-more approach has been taken, it's made for a very palatable album (witness both Midwinter Graces and Gold Dust, both of which pulled me back to eager fandom after a long slump), so it was with a sigh of relief when I saw that Unrepentant Geraldines contained a mere 14 tracks. Once I'd heard the marvelous Trouble's Lament, I felt even more reassured - this is Tori's strongest single for a long, long time, lighter and more playful in sound but also a new sonic palette. It's one of the album's highlights, but it has strong competition indeed. From the opening America, through to the last strains of Invisible Boy, the 14 tracks have an air of enthusiasm and playful gear-switching that's been absent in recent years; the multi-part title track is a true joy, once again taking the Tori Amos sound into new territories that echo The Police, of all things. Part of the lightness is the absence of Matt Chamberlain's monotonous drumming, or really any drums at all, which prevents too much weight to the songs - when there are drums, there's no direct credit, so I assume they are played or programmed by Mr Amos, or Mark Hawley/Mac Aladdin as he is credited. As a result, the sound is given more space, evidenced by the use of literal sound effects in 16 Shades Of Blue that might have been otherwise jarring, but here seem like a nice touch to an already-excellent song.
It's not all perfect; the trademark Tori Amos jauntiness found on Mr Zebra or Wednesday goes too far in the wrong direction on Giant's Rolling Pin, and the biggest howler is the use of her daughter Tash to sing alternating lines on the otherwise lovely Promise, ruining the song entirely. Similarly, I haven't quite settled into Selkie, which seems to be a favourite among everyone else. But for an album that's only been released in the last few days, it already feels simultaneously comfortingly familiar and a fresh new step.
Of the three bonus tracks, none of them are essential listening, but since only one of them actually costs money at time of writing (the iTunes exclusive White Telephone To God), it does no harm to round out the album with these curios. The deluxe CD Forest Of Glass is probably the best, reminiscent of the classic Garlands.
In objective terms, this would merit four stars from me - it's not all top-flight material, but it's not far off; however, the palpable sense of relief at the high quality after her last `proper' album (ie non-seasonal, non-classical album of new material, which was half a decade ago) was the weakest of her career, this gets five stars. I'll be very interested to see what comes next...