Tori Amos: Scarlet's Walk

Patrick Schabe

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.

Tori Amos

Scarlet's Walk

Label: Epic
US Release Date: 2002-10-29
UK Release Date: 2002-10-28

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.