Tori Amos started 2020 expecting to release a new record and embark on another tour before year’s end: needless to say, the world had other ideas. 2020 passes without an Amos full-length, making 2017’s Native Invader her most recent opus, but she is sneaking in a little holiday gift in the form of Christmastide, a four-song EP of all-new material recorded this summer.
Christmastide, released digitally and on a beautiful gatefold vinyl with complementary holiday greeting, feels like a reunion of sorts. Not only is the comic book-style artwork created by her long-time friend Rantz Hoseley, but it reunites Amos with her chief collaborators between 1998-2009, drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans (their parts recorded remotely). Amos’ most recent two records, Native Invader and 2014’s Unrepentant Geraldines, had musician duties handled exclusively by Amos and her engineer husband Mark Hawley (aka Mac Aladdin) – so it is a thrill to hear live bass and drums emanating from her music once again.
Christmastide isn’t Amos’ first foray into ‘holiday music’ – 2009’s Midwinter Graces saw Amos tackle a combination of traditional carols and festive originals – but it largely trumps its predecessor, which could sometimes come off cloying and saccharine. That’s not to say that Christmastide rivals the dynamism of Amos’ best records, but there is enough here to keep listeners interested.
The first two previews from the EP bookend it, and are largely the least interesting of the four new songs. “Christmastide” is simple and sweet, like “Little Drummer Boy” meets Amos’ 2003 reimagining of her b-side “Mary” from Tales of a Librarian – a tasteful mid-tempo tune with her 20-year-old daughter Tash on additional harmonies. Closer “Better Angels” is strange, like a reversion back to the frivolous pop-rock hybrid sound she employed on 2007’s American Doll Posse – Hawley’s squalling guitar work is sprayed like manure over the general mood and the mix is a little muddy.
It’s on the middle two songs where Christmastide really gets going, with quality late-70s-style arrangements and darker melodies that match the influence of the Cornish folklore in Amos’ lyrics. “Holly” sounds a little like a mid-tempo Fleetwood Mac/ABBA hybrid, created by Hawley’s 70s-style guitar, its hypnotic “wreath the holly” refrain, and the contrast between Amos’ snaky electric keys and rumbling piano.
Best of all though is the bewitching “Circle of Seasons”, with a haunting, recurring piano motif and serpentine melody. It reaches a crescendo with its hook of “the Michael and the Mary Line,” a reference perhaps to Amos’ late brother Michael, who died in 2004, and her mother Mary, who passed last year. It’s an emotive, beautiful song full of evocative imagery – of a “silver glimmer / out of the sea,” a “shepherdess” watching from the cliffs, and the childhood memory of “being Little Puddle Jumpers to running with the rain.” Hawley’s guitar work accentuates rather than detracts, and Evans and Chamberlain wrap their rhythm around Amos’ piano. It’s stunning.
Amos’ voice throughout the EP is high and pretty, matching the silvery, hopeful mood of the material – it isn’t her most potent work, but as a festive offering in a blighted year, it’s a welcome message of strength and optimism. And if a song like “Circle of Seasons” is anything to go by, there is still some gold to come from one of the great songwriters of our time.