“Mother” unfolds with strange formality, opening with a minute-long instrumental prelude in Cm before the song proper begins in Gb. (The official sheet music omits this entirely, beginning at the start of the main piano line.) It’s scarcely the only time Amos will use an approach like this—she’ll use the same trick next album on “Icicle,”for instance. But it grounds the song more in Amos’s classical training than anything else on Little Earthquakes, giving the song a strange and almost ritualistic feel when compared to anything around it.
This fits the strange confrontation within it. “Mother” is structured around a relationship of authority—it opens in the imperative: “go, go, go, go now / out of the nest it’s time,” and with instructions to “tuck those ribbons under / your helmet be a good soldier.” But Amos is in no way content to play the submissive underling. The song’s narrative voice bleeds from mother to daughter, shifting midway through the first verse. And the daughter is far from compliant, keeping secrets and plotting her escape.
Within this slippery dynamic, meanwhile, something is clearly very wrong. This comes through not in any clear flashes of trauma but in oblique shadows—the mother’s strangely cruel comfort in the first verse as she coos, “here here now don’t cry / you raised your hand for the assignment,” or the eerie description of a disconnected phone “dripping with blood and with / time and with your advice.” The result is unsettling and creepy, especially given Amos’s performance—“Mother” is the only song on the album that’s recorded as just Amos and her piano, and Amos works her way across the song’s odd, enjambed lines by offering unexpected and asynchronous crescendos between the vocal and piano lines.
Talking about the song, Amos stresses its mystical origins, saying that it “came on a bit like a dream sleep. It was early morning when I made the way to the piano. I knew that ‘they’ were trying to show me something. A memory of ‘the fall.’ Not the one we’ve been taught, but the other side of the story, which is the belief of certain ancient mythologies.” Speaking later, she elaborated on this: “I knew that ‘Winter’ needed to be written, which represented not just the father, but the grandfather—Poppa, my mother’s father. So the positive male energies in my life, and also moments with men, with their disappointment in themselves and how that plays out. I wanted —I needed—the polar opposite, so I felt like this needed to go beyond the human mother. This needed to go back to ideas of Creatrix and that God is not just male, but of the Creator being female and male. So this is the feminine story coming down to earth, leaving this soul space and saying goodbye to Mother Creator as I go to Mother Earth. And the last thing is somebody leaves the light on.”
This is all well and good, but also difficult to quite credit—the cosmic dance of prelapsarian femininity fits oddly with the aforementioned sense of unsettling wrongness. If this is a counterpart to “Winter”’s largely positive portrayal of masculine energies, it’s a shockingly grim view of the feminine divine. Amos is certainly not one to treat the feminine as an unalloyed and flawless good (c.f. “Cornflake Girl” and “She’s Your Cocaine”), although those instances usually involve the mundane feminine as opposed to the divine. But penning a song about the feminine divine as an abusively narcissistic parent figure and then presenting it as a counterpart to a song about the positive male energies in her life is implausibly far out of character.
An obvious biographical alternative exists: if “Winter” is about positive male influences throughout her life including her grandfather, it makes sense to read “Mother” as an engagement with her despised paternal grandmother. This fits most of the lyrical evidence squarely—her grandmother’s focus on a woman’s role as preparing for marriage and then giving herself utterly to her husband fits neatly with lines like “brides in veils for you” or “he’s gonna change my name,” while her emphasis on sexual purity makes sense of the bridge’s resolution of “across the sky and / across my heart and / I cross my legs / oh my god.” More broadly, the overall portrait of a vindictively controlling mother fits with Amos’s contemptuous descriptions of her. (Compare “I walked into your dream / and now I’ve forgotten / how to dream my own dream / you are a clever one aren’t you” with her descriptions of her grandmother as “a very smart woman. She graduated from the University of Virginia in the ’20s. She could interpret Byron and Shelley like nobody’s business. That’s why she was so dangerous” or her comment that “I felt I just had to unravel the way she planted thoughts in people. Soul-destroying thoughts.”)
And yet collapsing the song into simple biography is unsatisfying as well. The song is too unsettling and strange to reduce to a simple “it’s about her hyper-conservative grandmother” in a comfortable way. The central image of a car come to take the daughter away to possibly lose herself forever in a night of dancing doesn’t make any more sense in the context of her grandmother than the song’s sinister overtones do in light of Amos’s account of reconnecting with the Creatrix.
The two approaches certainly can be reconciled—Amos’s furious vow in Piece by Piece, “Grandma, I will weave myself into your ideology so I can hunt for the hidden codes of control that affect those around you… I will escape your grasp by holding your hand” comes close enough to doing so that it borders on proving the case. It’s not even terribly unlikely—for all that Amos eventually makes a career out of reclaiming the feminine divine, it’s not like songs along those lines are thick on the ground in the Little Earthquakes area. The nearest point of comparison, “Mary,” is as we noted a confused and compromised number. For all that this is something that’s a defining part of Amos’s career, there’s no reason to think it was yet. And it’s entirely plausible that in the course of working up to being able to write something like “Muhammad My Friend” she had to first write a song that grappled with the poison legacy of her grandmother.
At the end of the day, however, “Mother” is a song where any “silver bullet” interpretation feels fundamentally unsatisfying. The song is best understood as the visionary work that it is—as a song that came to Amos from within a liminal place, full of mysteries. Interpretation of it cannot offer a singular and definitive explanation because that’s simply not what it is. Threads of influence can be documented, and the ways in which those threads begin to weave together can be apprehended, but ultimately you can’t reduce art to a set of influences, and this becomes even more true with art that is openly and vividly magical, where what is going on exists on a level that is at least partially beyond mere sensibility. In the end, this, as much as the ominously threatening cast of the lyrics or the way in which Amos’s performance gives the sense of a song traversing treacherous ground, is what gives the song its profound and wondrous sense of unease. There are things going on here that we, and indeed even Amos are not party to and do not have control over.
At some point, no doubt, I’ll get down to the business of delineating an era of Tori Amos and declaring the best songs in it. It’s part of the grammar of a song-by-song blog, after all. I’m not sure where “Mother” is going to land in its era. Not at the top, certainly—it’s not even the best song on Little Earthquakes. And even if I cut the era after Under the Pink there are likely to be enough more conventionally stunning songs to keep it out of a best of list. (And I’m more likely to cut it at Boys for Pele anyway.) But I think this mostly serves as a commentary on the limitations of the “best of” structure and its inherent prioritization of cutting and incisive pop. “Mother” is playing a different game than all of that—indeed, it’s playing a different game to the rest of Little Earthquakes. This isn’t pop music, with all its gregariously unifying and leveling instincts. It isn’t music to project yourself onto or relate to. It’s obtuse, strange, and, to return to where we started, more than slightly ritualistic, belonging to a grammar and aesthetic that simply prioritizes different things than pop.
But writing these entries means spending a few days inside a given song. That doesn’t just mean listening to it a lot, although it’s certainly the case that my entire family makes fun of me for how many times they have to listen to a given Tori Amos song. It means diving into the conceptual space of the song—spending an extended amount of time in the role of “the listener” as a given song understands it. And that space, for “Mother,” is a thing with more depth and vastness than anything I’ve talked about so far. It’s a space that extends beyond what I can reach with my little diving bell, whose boundaries reach further than the light I cast can illuminate. It feels sacred, strange, and fundamentally magical to be here. Like it’s better suited to simply cutting my line and drowning within these luminous depths than it is to exegesis, surrendering to them in the hope that afterwards there will be some light left to guide me home. Perhaps it is; perhaps I shall.
Recorded in Los Angeles at Capitol Records in 1990, produced by Davitt Sigerson. Played throughout Amos’s career.