Tori Amos' cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" got a fair amount of college-radio airplay back when it was released as a B-side to the "Crucify" single. Logic suggested that it should have raised accusations of tailcoat-riding, but it didn't. And it didn't need to. What Amos was doing at the timestripping away the layers and production tricks to bring the singer- songwriter sound back to basicssounded somehow in sync with the music coming from Seattle, even though it didn't resemble it sonically. That, fundamentally, remains Amos' M.O. So why, 13 years into Amos' career as a solo recording artist, does each new album seem like an occasion for yawning just a little louder?
A drifting focus has a lot to do with it. Amos' Little Earthquakes worked in part because of the disarming directness of both its lyrics and its melodies, but Amos has edged closer to abstraction in both categories over the years. There's a fine line dividing oblique lyricism and obscure poesy, and lacking a strong display of songcraft, Amos' more recent albums have had a hard time sustaining their creator's ambitions. The Beekeeper, Amos' new 18-song collection, at first seems aware of this and sets out to correct it. The album kicks off with "Parasol," which begins on an unsettlingly quiet note that builds as Amos talks her way through the process of reaching an unwanted conclusion. "When I come to terms, this my world will change for me," she sings of a phone call carrying dreaded news. It's an achingly human moment. And then the drift begins.
Arranged in six "gardens" of three songs each, the remainder of the album floats by without stirring much interest. "Barons Of Suburbia" seems to want to take sides in the culture war, but never steadies its aim. "The Power Of Orange Knickers" is never as off-puttingly precious as its title, but it wastes Damien Rice by relegating him to a background-singer role. There are some cringe-inducing moments here and there, many of them clustered within a song called "Original Sinsuality," but mostly, The Beekeeper's contents sound resigned to a role as study-lounge background music. The smell of teen spirit has become the odor of stale potpourri.