Lost in a Place Called America
One of the inevitable results of the period following the attacks of September 11, 2001 was that artists of all stripes would come out with pieces that reflected their reactions to the disastrous events. Whether as an attempt to express the emotional horror, the tragedy, or the need for hope, such expressions are a part of the cathartic process when such an impact has been felt.
For Tori Amos, the events of 9/11 and their aftermath were a call for re-examination, both of what it meant to be an American, and what our nation’s particular history held. Essentially, the roots of the United States’ very peculiar mythology were exposed as we threw flags and solidarity and values and mores and shock into one large suture to cover the wound. But such wounds also reveal the meat beneath the surface of the skin, and while it can be a strange and sickening feeling, it’s impossible not too look and ask questions of it and explore the nature of that which is typically hidden away. In other words, one of the results of September 11 is that people everywhere were forced to question what it means to be an “American”.
These questions merged with a more personal history in Amos, whose direct lineage to the Cherokee people through he grandfather has always been a part of her personal definition. The understanding of the US’s aggressive history, in particular the experience of the Trail of Tears, sat uneasily next to the version of post-9/11 America that pretended innocence. So, in order to rediscover America for herself and directly confront its myths, Tori took a walk, a very long walk. For a year, Amos took to the road, crisscrossing the United States on an extended road trip and personal exploration. As a travelogue, a novel told through song, an expose of myth and personal relationships, and a concept album, Scarlet’s Walk is a record of these experiences.
In fact, Scarlet’s Walk is an incredible idea, and as ambitious as anything in recent pop music memory. Amos has distilled her own real-life road trip into a succession of stories, told through the eyes of a semi-autobiographical character named Scarlet. As Scarlet moves through her life, falling in and out of relationships with friends, lovers, and traveling companions, her commentary ranges from the intensely personal to the complexly abstract. America, both the physical land and the conceptual space, are explored in the context of a wild, scarred, and open free spirit’s own journey through herself. Scarlet and her attendant cast of characters come to represent a unique story of adventure, Amos’s own conflicted feelings, and the American landscape itself. To accentuate this complex narrative, the Scarlet’s Walk CD implements ConnecteD technology which unlocks a special website, called Scarlet’s Web, through Amos’s homepage. On this site you can trace Scarlet’s path across the US with extra details including photos, a fictional travel diary, and geographical information. The same site also includes a running document of Amos’s current tour as well as information on the various Native American tribes that were originally indigenous to each region of the country. In addition, the content of Scarlet’s Web is continually updated with new information, giving the listener an ongoing, lived interaction with Scarlet’s Walk. It’s truly a multimedia experience.
For all that, what makes Scarlet’s Walk truly exceptional is that it is probably Amos’s finest work since Under the Pink. While Boys for Pele and From the Choirgirl Hotel had their definite moments, they were complicated albums, and at times only barely accessible. Last year’s Strange Little Girls album, a disc completely comprised of reworked covers of songs about women originally recorded by men, seemed like a conceit and a stumble. While some praised the idea as genius, the execution failed on a number of levels. Scarlet’s Walk might have gone the same route, a brilliant concept lost to poor implementation, but it does not. Instead, Amos has produced one of the most invigorating and arresting works of her career. It may have something to do with her recent move from the Atlantic label, where she has admitted the relationship was strained, to the Epic label and greater freedom, but whatever the case the results are phenomenal.
Scarlet’s Walk is alternately delicate, lush, soft, gritty, beautiful, painful, wistful and joyous—in short, all the things that devotees of Tori have come to expect. However, with Scarlet’s Walk, Amos doesn’t deliver in spots, she delivers in spades, maintaining a consistent strength throughout the album that supports, or is supported by, the core story at the heart of the album. There’s also a palpable sense of maturity in this disc, which translates to an expansive but commanding songcraft ability. The brash and confrontational Tori of Little Earthquakes seems to have become an introspective and confident woman here, yet another reflection of the Scarlet persona’s growth throughout the album.
Musically, Scarlet’s Walk may actually be the most complete and approachable Amos album yet released. The piano remains front and center, sometimes replaced with organs but essentially the heart of Amos’s sound, and her claim to mastery of the instrument is only reinforced by this album. But while the older musical references of Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell as forebears are still strongly in evidence, Amos seems to have gained a sense of mainstream pop from those whom she herself has influenced. This is nowhere more evident than on “A Sorta Fairytale”, the album’s first and most obvious single, which finds Tori sounding not unlike a combination of Jewel and Vanessa Carlton. Elsewhere she seems to invoke the spirit of Stevie Nicks (not surprisingly, as Tori’s live version of “Landslide” remains the best cover of that song I’ve ever heard), particularly on “Pancake”. This is not to say that Amos has changed her tune. Fans of her older material won’t cry “sell-out”, and the powerful back-to-back combo of “Carbon” and “Crazy” will instantly appeal to her die-hard audience.
Lyrically, Amos hasn’t changed all that much at all. Her lyrics remain cryptic and obtuse here, but the focus of a long storytelling gives these songs a greater readability. Many of these songs can be read as individual explorations of relationships, and the uncanny ability that Amos has cultivated in turning her weird, dream-like ramblings into coded messages that appeal to individual and highly personal interpretation hasn’t diminished. However, in the greater context of describing Scarlet’s journey, these songs take on a larger significance that adds to their weight. Even the gorgeous “Your Cloud”, which is possibly the most straightforward song in Amos’s collection, has added relevance in this context. But this is undeniably a Tori Amos joint (to steal from Spike Lee). Even the obligatory reference to her friend, author Neil Gaiman, works its way onto Scarlet’s Walk in an off-kilter line in “Carbon”. This seems especially relevant considering the similar work Gaiman recently did in his fabulous novel, American Gods, itself an exploration of mythology in America (Amos-Gaiman watchers might also note the song “Wednesday”, the name of one of the characters in American Gods, but that might be stretching things a bit).
If anything keeps Scarlet’s Walk from completely succeeding, it might be Amos’s ambition itself. The disc clocks in at over 74 minutes of music, and makes for a long, involved listen. The rewards for investing the time are certainly great, but by the time the last few songs play through it’s hard to maintain focus, which is a shame considering “Scarlet’s Walk” and “Gold Dust” are both great songs. A part of the problem is that as Scarlet matures over the course of the album, the music becomes softer, more lush and orchestrated, and it causes a bit of a lull. The other problem is that the story of Scarlet itself is incredibly complicated, while Amos is not one to spell things out in bold letters. The lyrics are typically cryptic, and even with the addition of the Scarlet’s Web information, it’s a slightly puzzling story to work out. The fact that the press kit for the album includes a track-by-track description of how each song progresses in the story makes it slightly easier for critics to appreciate than it does for listeners.
But for these small problems, Scarlet’s Walk is an amazing album. The concept alone is worth mention, and is an ambitious and thought-provoking project. One thing that this disc seems to highlight is that America is a land of change, and we are constantly rediscovering it, and ourselves within it. But even as a straight collection of songs, all connections aside, this is some of Amos’s best work. Scarlet’s Walk cements Amos’s reputation, but it also seems like a homecoming from the more contrived work of her recent past. Complex, weighty, often brilliant, Scarlet’s Walk is the album that many a fan has been waiting for.