A painstaking analysis of Tori Amos’ “Silent All These Years” (off her debut studio album Little Earthquakes). Too lazy to de-adjective this thing, so here it is, preserved like an emo little mosquito in amber.
In 1991, Tori Amos released her first single, “Silent All These Years,” from her first solo album, Little Earthquakes. A piano ballad, the song helped to establish Amos’ particular musical style and identity in her beginning years as a solo artist, and also introduced a generation of listeners to her complex melodies and cryptic but highly emotional lyrics.
The composition was based on a 3-second riff (what Amos calls “the bumblebee piano tinkle”) which is featured in its opening and remains the most recognizable musical figure of the song. The piano alone plays fourteen notes, all within half-steps of each other except for the higher final note, indeed evoking the up-and-down flight of a bumblebee. The riff is whimsical, as are the opening melodies. As Amos begins to softly sing, the piano interjects syncopated, high, staccato notes above her words, forming a major scale that gently descends over each phrase. The effect is that of a music box playing a lullaby, providing an aural comfort that seems to clash with the first few lines: “Excuse me, but can I be you for awhile?…I got something to say, you know, but nothing comes.” The lyrical content suggests insecurity and frustration (“Yes, I know what you think of me; you never shut up”) which is offset by the soothing, flowing accompaniment. Amos’ singing is lilting and breathy, sometimes no more than a whisper, echoing the tentative voice of a child. Ultimately, these first 30 seconds, with their spare arrangement of voice and piano, set a stage of innocence and loneliness.
A more positive strain is introduced at 0:38, when Amos wonders, “But what if I’m a mermaid?” Her hope is accompanied by a small string section, which plays successively higher whole notes, increasing the general feeling of confidence into the phrase “Sometimes, I hear my voice, I hear my voice…” Amos then declares “It’s been here,” singing her loudest on the word “here.” The result is a growing sense of self-esteem, contrasting the hesitancy of the beginning of the song; it culminates in a strong self-affirmation. However, Amos then clarifies the phrase by concluding that her voice has been “silent all these years.” She sings these words in the same soft style in which she began, against a background of silence; the expression is concluded with the bumblebee riff. From this, the listener gets the impression that although Amos seems to have finally recognized her own independence and wishes for more personal freedom, she is discouraged by a past in which she felt hushed and invisible and returns to this mindset often.
More of a background appears in the next verse (beginning at 1:08), which she addresses to someone who is probably a partner or love interest. She seems hurt and insecure when she asks, “So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts; what’s so amazing about really deep thoughts?” This phrase suggest that Amos has been devalued by her lover, especially in terms of intelligence, and explain the fact that she has felt the need to remain “silent all these years.” Amos also reveals a possible pregnancy and an angry threat with “Boy, you best pray that I bleed real soon; how’s that thought for you?” She also seems to confess that she tries to emotionally suppress her tumultuous life by saying that “[her] scream got lost in a paper cup.” The lyrics read more like a furious argument than like poetry, and they again clash with the gentle, rhythmic plinks of the piano. This is the song’s climax of disorientation and frustration.
At 1:38, the chorus begins again with the same childish question, symbolizing Amos’ repeated return to a mental haven of hope and fantasy. However, instead of concluding with the same sad utterance of “silent all these years,” the chorus gives way, at 2:01, to a loud and urgent-sounding bridge. Fear and desperation ring within the lyrics:
Years go by, will I still be waiting
for somebody else to understand?
Years go by, if I’m stripped of my beauty
and the orange clouds raining in my head
Years go by, will I choke on my tears
till finally there is nothing left?
One more casualty, you know it’s too easy, easy, easy
Amos sings the same high note, with little embellishment, creating a shrill and insistent feel that is underscored by a driving, low piano accompaniment. Both the musical and lyrical components come together to paint a clear portrait of the deepest emotions behind Amos’ thoughts. She is frantic in her search for a sympathetic ear and some comfort, fearing that if the “years go by” for too long, her mentality of suppression and her waning good looks will combine to trap her in loneliness forever. She also points out her fleeting existence as a human being, calling the loss of her motivation a “casualty” that would be “too easy.” Her slightly higher repetition of the word “easy” again highlights her terror in the face of this possibility. Lower backing vocals repeat many of the phrases, such as “stripped of my beauty” and “choke on my tears,” which represents the obsessive-compulsive back-and-forth thinking that often occurs in her mind as a result of this constant fear.
The next two verses return to the lullaby-like piano and quiet vocal style, but the lyrics take a surprisingly different focus. At 2:34, Amos mentions a tender moment between her and her lover as he looks at her lips and says that she “loves the way [they] communicate.” It is unclear whether she is referring to the lover she spoke of previously, or a new partner; however, the next verse seems to point more to the former. Amos introduces the image of her lover’s mother, as an imposing, unpleasant figure wearing a “nasty dress,” and tells him that it’s “[his] turn now to stand where I stand.” The tables are now turned upon her lover as he is faced with a figure that makes him feel intimidated and helpless. Amos sings the phrase “where I stand” (at 2:51) higher and louder than the rest of the verse and with a deep echo, seeming to strongly assert herself. The strings also rise during these lines, becoming most prominent as Amos offers her hand to her lover, giving him the comfort she sought out herself. She steadily grows in inner strength after voicing her fears in the bridge, and in the lyrics, appears strong enough to forgive the one who kept her silent.
At 3:02, the chorus commences for the last time with its question, but when Amos reaches the phrase “I hear my voice,” she repeats it three times, each time her voice a little stronger. Instead of singing the phrase “silent all these years” herself, her voice drops out and backing vocals sing it in a high, breathy tone, suggesting that the voices in her head which before confirmed her low self-worth are now fading. She then confirms her improved confidence by declaring that not her voice, but that she herself has now been brought fully into existence: “I’ve been here, silent all these years.” The strings rise again at 3:52, accompanying the piano melody in low, flowing tones. The song resolves into an extended major chord at 3:57, bringing the piece to a calm, satisfied end.
Amos is well-known for her whimsical songwriting, often incorporating puns and musical hooks. However, in “Silent All These Years,” the whimsy underlies a deeper emotional meaning; this is illustrated in the juxtaposition of the bumblebee riff and the sadness of the song’s introduction. Complex musical masking of the lyrics disappears in the bridge, in which sound and word evoke the same reaction. The structure of the song represents an elaborate unmasking of Amos’ soul, and is extremely effective, and affecting, in its purpose.