There are two approaches to choosing a title track for an album. One is to pick something that seems a thesis statement for the album, capturing its major musical and lyrical themes while not risking confusion by wanting to be a single. The other is to pick something with a cool title. It is this latter approach that explains why an album dominated by fairly simply arranged piano ballads featuring confessional lyrics flecked with spots of idiosyncrasy is named after an austerely ominous song whose lyrics are basically wall to wall crypticness.
Much of Little Earthquakes feels as though it appeared sui generis from nowhere save for the interior of Tori mos’s head. There are a few exceptions—the ruins and traces of Y Kant Tori Read and of the 80s at large lurk throughout the album. But for the most part, Amos feels profoundly singular. On top of that, Amos is historically extremely reticent to talk about her musical influences—one is left to infer them from what songs she chooses to cover, and given that her covers are often hostile takeovers rather than homages, this is an unreliable process at best. Nevertheless it bears mentioning that, excluding songs such as “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that were first recorded as studio tracks, Amos’s third most common cover in live shows is The Cure’s “Lovesong,” which has shown up repeatedly on tours starting with Under the Pink and continuing through Native Invader.
“Lovesong” is of course off of The Cure’s 1989 album Disintegration, which is by far the safest choice if you’re ever cornered by angry goths and told to name the best Cure album. And while it’s not quite clear that Amos namechecks the album in “Little Earthquakes,” given that the song belongs to the same set of recordings where she explicitly references Nine Inch Nails and Sandman, there’s an aggressive plausibility to the suggestion that Amos might have been thinking of an album that had only released its last single a few months earlier when she picked the word.
The better case, however, is simply found in the “Little Earthquakes”’ instrumentation. Its sweeping waves of dark synthesizers and deep drums conjure something very much like the drowned and moody beauty of The Cure’s masterpiece. The intro to “The Same Deep Water As You” is probably the best direct comparison, but Amos isn’t engaged in any sort of blithe homage of the sort that “You Go to My Head” was for Prince. “Little Earthquakes” is not using the same soundscape as Disintegration, opting to frame its forboding majesty around Amos’s piano instead of sprawling washes of guitar. It’s the difference between imitation and inspiration, and the fact that Amos has made that leap speaks volumes about how much she’s progressed since Y Kant Tori Read. And more to the point, it establishes that progression as being about far more than the authorized line that Amos started working with more personal material. She was, in point of fact, simply better at songwriting by this point than she had been a few years earlier, or even than she had been when she penned “China” and “Take to the Sky.”
This is apparent in the structure of “Little Earthquakes” as well. Amos laconically describes the song in the Little Earthquakes Songbook saying, “My eye twitches sometimes. I was surrounded by the thoughts I smash. They decided I would be a good dinner. I decided I wanted 3 bridges in this song.” But what’s impressive isn’t that Amos is using a complexly baroque song structure—she’d been doing that since childhood. What’s impressive about “Little Earthquakes” is how little the song feels like it’s trying to impress. Its multiple bridges don’t sound like a technical exercise, but like a song making a justified decision to keep pushing itself into new and more intensive heights, earning its way to the cathartic “give me life / give me pain / give me my / self again” finale. Likewise, the moment in the verses where the song abruptly shifts up from E major to B major doesn’t hit like a gaudy and show-offy key change, but like a well-timed moment of awkward shrillness that’s justified by the lyrics’ condemnation of elevator music.
Past the music things aren’t quite as impressive—“Little Earthquakes” struggles to quite make it up to the sum of its parts, but those parts are impressive enough that this is a small failing. The song is dotted with phenomenal lyrics, of which “good year for hunters / and Christmas parties” is merely the best. But, in a preview of what will for better or for worse become a regular feature of Amos’s music, the lyrics do not quite cohere. The chorus speaks of unstable relationships, the bridge of cathartic healing, and everything else sits as cryptic flavor. (For her part, Amos suggests it’s about the breakup of a friend group, and while that makes sense, it’s interesting how little this information actually illuminates.) To one school of thought that views Amos as peaking with Little Earthquakes and descending into masturbatory obscurantism later, this marks an ominous sign. For another, for whom Amos’s singular weirdness is more interesting than her radical vulnerability, it’s a brooding epic in which Amos makes a major step forward.
But if I may be so bold as to resolve the dichotomy, I would suggest the former camp values Amos’s comparatively clear accounts of reclaiming her voice as superior to her actual use of that voice. It’s understandable that more accessible material is more popular, but in the end, there are obvious reasons not to do this. “Little Earthquakes,” more than anything else on the album named after it, shows what giving Amos herself again can lead to.
Recorded in Los Angeles at Eric Rosse’s home studio in 1990, produced by Rosse and Tori Amos. Played throughout Amos’s career.