Tori Amos has made a career of channeling other people: sensitive teens, rape victims, women in love, in breakups, in the throes of regret. Her last album, Strange Little Girls, was the most ambitious, if imperfect, display of her skills as a musical medium. She conjured female narrators for songs originally written and sung by men, and even physically transformed herself for each piece, a blond sweater-clad woman in one picture, a vamp with black-rimmed eyes in the next. Part of her chameleon skill lies in her face -- the mournful, knowing eyes countered by the unexpectedly sensual mouth. The other part lies in her music, which draws on post-Enya floaty singing and delicate piano work and screeching, growling and percussive keyboarding.
For such a mutable artist, then, the monochromatic Scarlet's Walk comes as surprise. Amos' latest endeavor is pretty and pleasant enough, but seems like only half of the story coming from a musician who's never been afraid of ugliness.
Billed as a "sonic novel," the album follows Amos' alter ego, Scarlet, on a journey through the United States. Written while Amos was touring the country post-9-11, the album is colored by the stories of loss and confusion that Amos' audiences would crowd in to tell her after her performances. All mid-tempo melancholia, Scarlet's Walk certainly reflects the nation's doubting, introspective mood. But it displays little of the anger and rawness that were also present -- the flashes of rage and fierce love that have also always been part of Amos' past work.
A good number of songs -- perhaps half -- still manage to shine out of the album's murk. "Amber Waves" sketches out the life of a fading porn star in a few deft phrases: "from ballet class to a lap dance straight to video/and the pool side news was that he would be launching you/into every young man's bedroom." Borrowed from Julianne Moore's Madonna-whore character in Boogie Nights, the song's title makes the porn star stand in for America -- both are pimped out, as Amos seems to imply, for profit.
"Pancake" and "Taxi Ride" have more of that hard-rocking spirit that infused one of Amos' strongest albums, From the Choirgirl Hotel. "A Sorta Fairytale" captures the delicious sadness of looking back on one perfect day in a now-shattered relationship. "And I'm so sad/like a good book I can't put this day back/a sorta fairytale with you." The map on the inside of the CD booklet shows the path Scarlet took through the country -- each song is on the path, coded with a different color. The trail for "A Sorta Fairytale" loops back on itself, backtracks for miles, as stuck and sad as the woman in the song.
Other songs highlight the strengths Amos has largely left by the wayside in this album -- tight writing and songs that don't obscure her expressive voice and piano-playing by swaddling them in layers of aural chiffon. "Carbon" moves along with a polyrhythmic urgency; driven by muted drumming and filigree piano work, the song is smoothed over by the lyrical arch of Amos' singing. "Your Cloud" is stripped down to a simple melodic line, gentle percussion and piano chords.
At other times, however, Amos' tendency to wander melodically runs unchecked. She shifts meter randomly, sticks in a few too many improvisatory cadences, loses the thread of a song while canoodling on her piano. Amos' lyrics have always been famously elliptical; her songwriting tends toward a loose, made-up feeling. But when the lyrics didn't make sense, the music usually did, and vice versa -- listening to Amos' music required letting go, letting your mind fill in the spaces unconsciously. This time, however, there's not enough connective tissue to make sense of some of the pieces. The songs are sometimes sprawling, the words purposely precious, like the poetry of the humorless girl in everyone's high school, the one who sported bedhead hair before it was cool and wore batcave clothes.
These moments make me yearn for the Tori of albums past -- the nasty daughter of a preacher man who rode her piano bench like it was the world's largest vibrator, and crooned about masturbating while her father was downstairs delivering a sermon. Where'd she go, the redhead with the kinky Christian fetish, the woman who once sang with the similarly troubled Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, the two of them a musical match made in -- dare I say it? -- a warped Heaven. Where's the witchy summoner of voices, of unheard whisperers?
In Strange Little Girls, Amos performed her most powerful character resurrection by taking on an Eminem song that depicts the murder of his ex-wife and disposal of her body in front of their daughter. Amos transforms "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" from a blistering rant to a chilling, spectral farewell from the woman, dying or dead in the trunk of her murderer's car. The hushed song is a more powerful indictment of Eminem's misogyny than a thousand of the fevered protests and press releases his lyrics usually incite -- his words, uttered through her mouth, became a harrowing attempt to reassure the daughter from the beyond that really, everything is okay. After a brilliant, unsettling song like this, the soothing charms of Scarlet's Walk -- half lovely songs, half meandering, soft-focus, background music -- seem pedestrian indeed.
Noy Thrukpkaew is a former Prospect writing fellow.