This week, two relics of ‘90s alternaculture are openly revisiting their pasts with what are essentially reissues of their earlier work. Tori Amos has released Gold Dust, a collection of 14 (or 15, depending on which version you have) songs from her back catalog that she's rerecorded with the Metropole Orchestra. Meanwhile, Tim Burton has converted his pre-Pee Wee's Big Adventure short film Frankenweenie into a full-length stop-motion feature. It's out Friday.
Amos and Burton channel their vintage selves into a contemporary context with what seems like uncanny ease. Typically on Gold Dust, the older the offerings, the more they sound like their source material. Aside from a richer texture, Amos' slightly less acrobatic voice and some beefed-up backing vocals, "Cloud on My Tongue" is virtually indistinguishable from how it sounded on 1994's Under the Pink. Amos sings all of these songs in almost the exact same phrasings she did however many years ago, and as she has been in concert for however many years since. Sure, "Jackie's Strength" has added echoes and the climactic "guuuuuurl" of the decidedly different, de-murked "Precious Things" is more caustic than how it was delivered on 1992's Little Earthquakes. But there are few surprises to be found on Gold Dust, mainly because so many of these songs already featured string sections arranged by John Philip Shenale (who did these, as well). Occasionally, new life wafts in — "Snow Cherries from France," a song Amos had kicked around for years before finally putting it on another compilation featuring gently reworked versions of old compositions, 2003's Tales of a Librarian, is granted the elegance its initially rickety over-production denied it. But for the most part, these songs are just breathing like they have been for years via Amos' tireless touring and nightly tinkering of the work that gave her professional life.
Frankenweenie isn't quite as much of a facsimile of its source material – rather it is a greatest-hits collection of Burton's career-prime obsessions. We have the suburbia and hill-above-town climax of Edward Scissorhands. We have Catherine O'Hara and Winona Ryder (whose animated self has short spiky bangs) of Beetlejuice. We have the momentum and madcap spiraling of the Pee-Wee's Big Adventure plot. We have the stop-motion figures with smoky saucer eyes burned into their faces, just like in The Nightmare Before Christmas, which Burton created, wrote and produced by did not direct. (Really, most of the figures look like Michael Jackson in some way.) We have Martin Landau, who played Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, voicing a teacher who looks like Vincent Price, the open inspiration for (and voice talent of) Burton's first stop-motion film, 1982's Vincent.
And of course, we have the retelling of Burton's original short about a kid who, much in the manner of Dr. Frankenstein, brings his dead dog back to life via electricity. The film eventually builds on Burton's love of matinee horror in a hilarious pastiche that involves resurrected animals from all over town and widely tips its hat at Godzilla and Gremlins (via oversized Sea Monkeys that basically steal the show). But this is a tribute first and foremost to Burton and damn it, he deserves it.
Frankenweenie is excellent and moving. It's better than anything Burton has done in over a decade. It works so well because it taps into fundamental human emotions that are rarely explored in such a literal manner – the desperation that finds us not taking death for an answer (or fantasizing about the possibility of rejecting it), specifically when it applies to pets. Amos, too, is above all things emotionally resonant with her audience, especially when she is as clear-voiced as she is in Earthquakes' mediation on the shifts in father-daughter relationships, "Winter," which she reprises on Gold Dust.
Amos has talked a lot about singing that song now that she has her own daughter who has her own relationship with her father. The song has not weathered over the years, which is sort of the point of Gold Dust's brushing off of old material, but it also renders it largely pointless. While Burton (via John August's screenplay) can pad his black-and-white film with new colors and eccentricities that help justify its existence (Mr. Whiskers, a cat who telegraphs his visions of people by pooping out their initials), Amos' eccentricity sounds largely reduced. The orchestra sands her sound's edges and saturates her poignancy with cinematic manipulation.
Despite the different effects, the most obvious reading of Amos' and Burton's intentions is a chasing of past glory. The years have not been kind to either's art and their profiles have diminished from the cultural forces they once were. She sells fewer records than she did 20 years ago (like just about everyone) and she hasn't recorded an agreed-upon classic since 2002's Scarlet's Walk (though I'd argue that 1996's Boys for Pele was the last time that she electrified an entire body of songs entirely). Burton is capable of being more profitable than ever (see Alice in Wonderland's $1 billion+ worldwide haul), but his last truly essential film was 1994's Ed Wood. Go ahead, make the argument for Mars Attacks!, Corpse Bride or (gag) Big Fish. But none of these defined his essence like the first six features he directed.
Being an artist who found success early on is difficult. New ideas are the public communicator's most precious commodities. It's an enormous a challenge to remain true to yourself while moving forward. Amos is a smart, smart woman who cares so much about her work that she speaks of her songs in anthropomorphized terms. In Gold Dust's promo interviews, she's answered basically every argument one could make about the album. She has claimed that recording live with a string section (as opposed to adding the strings in post) was an altered experience and she made a hell of a point when she told the Quietus:
Subtlety is a real art that isn't often appreciated. I guess I could have done the most shocking versions of songs. One could do that as an exercise. But sometimes it's more challenging to have a subtle shift. To do a complete makeover of somebody can be easier in some ways because it's a different kind of task.
But the effect of Gold Dust is putting tons of work into making a cake from scratch that ends up tasting slightly more like cinnamon than the one that was sitting on your counter the whole time. Burton's serving a Frankenpie and giving so much narcissism, influence and invention to sink your teeth into, whereas Amos' offering is merely orchestrated retroism.