Album Description & Insight

Midwinter Graces

Tuesday 16 August 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Less than six months after the release of her tenth studio album Abnormally Attracted to Sin, and right in the middle of a world tour, Tori Amos granted her fans in November 2009 with an eleventh studio release, Midwinter Graces,which is none other than a seasonal record, the first of her career. Surprising, considering she’s an artist –and a Methodist minister’s daughter – who often subversively criticized religious institutions and the one she was raised into in the first place?

But it would be forgetting that Miss Amos is never where you expect her to be and is always craving for new challenges. With Midwinter Graces, the challenge consisted in avoiding the typical pitfalls of Christmas records released by popular artists every year: covers of famous but conventional tunes performed in a no-less conventional and boring way. Commercially juicy but disdained and mocked by music critics, the seasonal record can turn out to be a real downfall for a lot of artists. Universal Music CEO Doug Morris, 70-years old and Jewish, was the one who challenged Tori to come up with something in March 2009, while she began promoting her tenth album.

Her mentor thought she was the best choice for such a record precisely because of her criticism on organized religion. "If you’re going to do this, would you just get rid of all this King of Israel business,” Tori recalls Doug told her in the bonus interview DVD of the album. “Because I’m Jewish and I really love these songs, but this whole thing, this whole religious thing is making me nuts."

The artist then chose an original point of view: she picked traditional carols (some being very ancient) and mixed some of them together into a single track. She also rewrote and/or modified the lyrics to remove dated and conservative contents. Her arrangements also often alter in a big way the melodies of these tracks. The idea behind the record being that it doesn’t address only Christian people but everyone. Hence Arabic chords and vocals on songs referencing the magi, coming from the East (“Star of Wonder”), or the rose (“Holly, Ivy and Rose”), another eastern symbol. The album also features five original Tori compositions.

Besides, the clever composer revealed she discovered in the New Oxford Book of Carols that most of these carols were originally sea shanties the Anglican Church got a hold of – and rewrote – to convey their own ideology. “When you think about it, I’m just doing what they did,”she told cunningly. “So I’m really part of this wonderful tradition of bringing forth a point of view of the time that the song is being sung. (laughing) I would say to you that my point of view is probably much much more closer to the original than what the Methodists probably did with it.” This choice to musically link past and present can be found at the heart of all the different tracks.

So why ’midwinter graces’, by the way? Well, simply because, in her will of not necessarily doing a religious record, instead of the birth of the divine child, Tori rather chose to base her main concept on the winter solstice, celebrated long before Christmas and symbolizing the rebirth of light in darkness. A pagan rite based on the earth and the cycle of seasons which is able to embrace all spiritual beliefs. Interestingly enough, Tori had already approached it, as a prelude, in her b-side “Garlands” in 2005. Thus, she doesn’t utter the word christmas once through the whole album. In most songs, it was replaced by midwinter.

And if Tori left quite a lot of references to Christianism and Jesus (“What Child, Nowell,” “Jeanette, Isabella,” or “Emmanuel”), it’s because she considers the Christian celebration as one of many traditions represented on the record, less the typical guilt-inducing “He’s our Saviour” and “He died on the cross for you.” Hence the very decidedly kitsch cover picture - the other photos of the booklet being in the same spirit - where the singer, arms outstretched almost cross-like and floating in the middle of the sky, substitutes to the omnipotent male God of organized religion the picture of a Goddess embracing the elements. Mother Earth, so to speak, or the Great Mother, as Native Americans – Tori being part Cherokee – call her.

And musically, what it’s all about? While usually seasonal record is synonym of cheesy music, Midwinter Graces shines as a brilliant and complex album. The record is definitely piano-based and the arrangements are subtle and gorgeous, with a good deal of great chords (thanks John Philip Shenale). A lot of songs draw a clear influence from classical music, complete with a touch of baroque. It is the case, in particular, of “Candle: Coventry Carol” and “Winter’s Carol.” This last song is the first excerpt of Tori’s forthcoming stage musical The Light Princess she developped with playwrith Samuel Adamson for the National Theatre of London and it clearly is one of her masterpieces which demonstrates, if need be, that she can easily compete with the XII, XIV or XVIII century traditional compositions she got a hold of.

She also invited a full big band on “Pink and Glitter”, a song familiar with the lounge atmosphere of the 50’s American jazz standards while “Snow Angel”, with its broad orchestra and simple but haunting notes on the piano, is subtly reminiscent of Russian music and atmosphere.

Though not typical, Midwinter Graces is a real seasonal record in the sense all the songs musically evoke the winter season. But, except timpani bells on “What Child, Nowell” and “Star of Wonder”, the songs don’t really sound Christmas-y and can be played at any time of the year.

Tori’s vocals also come as a surprise: on “Candle: Coventry Carol,” “Emmanuel” or “Winter’s Carol,” the singer uses her voice in an almost lyrical way, something she didn’t use to do but that sounds really great on the tracks mentioned.

Of course, being a minister’s daughter who spent a large part of her youth at church, Christmas is also and foremost a family business for Tori Amos. Tracks such as “A Silent Night With You,” “Pink and Glitter,” “Our New Year,” or the bonus track “Comfort and Joy remind us that Christmas can be a source of joy if you spend the holidays in family as much as a source of pain and loneliness when loved ones are not there. Tori invited two very special guests to sing in duet with her on two of the traditional tracks: her niece, Kelsey Dobyns, on “Candle: Coventry Carol,” and her own daughter, Natashya ‘Tash’ Hawley, nine years old at the time, on “Holly, Ivy and Rose.”

Tash makes pretty well by singing a few lyrics in response to her mother in the verses while 17 year-old Kelsey surprises by the impressive maturity and range of her voice. So much that the distinction between the niece’s and the aunt’s voice is at times pretty hard to make for the listener, Kelsey sounding like a younger Tori. And, for the record, the angel on the back cover and inside pictures is Tori’s model nephew, Casey Dobyns.

When Midwinter Graces could have been nothing more than a “bonus record” for fans, it truly is a “Tori Amos record” of its own right, which got a sensible influence on the next step of her career. Cheered up by the fan’s enthusiasm, she released in September 2011 her first album via the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, Night of Hunters. A piano-based song cycle inspired by classical themes of the last 400 years and the first of her release which doesn’t include any bass, drums or guitars but a string quartet and instruments such as bassoon, clarinet or flute instead.