Review Summary: Tori Amos does concept MOR road trip album. The result is a far more enjoyable and well-executed effort than one might think.
In the immediate wake of 9/11 Tori Amos was among the few artists who chose not to cancel their tours. She has told of the experience about meeting an audience still reeling from the effects of the event and the subsequent question of what really constitutes “America” being a vital one for her songwriting during this period of time.
Her second concept album (after the mere curiosa that was Strange Little Girls), on “Scarlet’s Walk” we follow the path of Scarlet, a mythical creation of Amos which combines herself, a fictional character and perhaps even the Trail of Blood. Her path takes us through the land of the U.S. of A, a road trip journey from the west coast and toward the east. This adventure is filled with various characters: friends, lovers, enemies, victims and Amber Waves from Boogie Nights making an appearance. Naturally, a rich multitude of themes and subjects are also explored, such as political awakening, religion, mental disarray, nostalgia and the ancestry of American soil. In addition this the album also clocks in at well over an hour.
However exhausting this might sound “Scarlet’s Walk” is actually Amos’ most accessible album and, often times, a real joy to listen to. Yes, concept albums would become a non-event in her discography later on (and very often an obstacle to the listener), but despite of referential complexity the words here are often brought down to a personal and simple level. On tracks such as “Strange” and “Your Cloud” the protagonist deals with an emotional landscape that is both welcoming and relatable, while elsewhere songs are lifted from otherwise unimpressive arrangements because of the colorful and vivid characters she runs into. What about that troubled detour in the cleverly titled “Don’t Make Me Come To Vegas” or the desert flirtation that occurs in “Crazy” with the memorable line “First let’s just unzip your religion down
The biggest factor making “Scarlet’s Walk” such an enjoyable listen, however, is its musical approach. After the electronic tinkering in the late 90s Tori and the band do a more acoustic and serene take, as a very straightforward ‘band’. Even vocally she’s not doing any shape-shifting or destructive gymnastics, instead staying comfortable in her mid-register. It isn’t to say tension and tempo is chucked out. Rather, the manifestation of a summer breeze making its way through the vast nature of America is being channeled. Amos imitates this in the refrain on “Carbon”, layering several reverbed vocal melodies in the mix to create an airy atmosphere as the piano skates along.
More importantly the willingness to do no-fuss pop songs is the backbone of “Scarlet’s Walk”. They’re not particularly exciting on a musical level in the same way as From The Choirgirl Hotel
, yet there’s no need for that. “A Sorta Fairy Tale” and “Taxi Ride” are just great radio singles, however ‘adult contemporary’ they might come across as.
Fans might crave more than a radio friendly album, however. Where are the emotionally affecting songs that have resonated with so many people listening to Amos since the early 90s? They aren’t many, but the ambitious “I Can’t See New York” and “Gold Dust” make a case for being some of Tori’s best songs, period. In the former she does a remarkable feat of storytelling seen from the perspective of a woman in the airplane that hit the World Trade Center. She’s trying to find a loved one in the free-fall after the hit, but, in the locked moment of the song, can’t seem to find that person or even see New York City, which lies below her airborne body. “Gold Dust” isn’t as dramatic, but it tugs sentimentally at the heartstrings with one of Amos’ biggest orchestral arrangements; perceiving childhood and adolescence through the melancholy distance of time.
An issue is that these highlights are tucked along with other songs that don’t carry as interesting ideas. Decent cuts aside, in many ways a few of the 18 tracks here are ‘fluff’, a problem that becomes a small setback for this project, but which would become all the more frustrating later on in Tori’s career of releases. In addition to this they sometimes interrupt the lyrical and musical flow of the album, as is the case with "Virginia" inexplicably following the title track's cinematic build-up to a finale.
The thing about concept albums is that they often require a great deal of attention and work from their listeners. But don’t be mistaken; this case marries concept and feeling a lot better than other efforts by Amos. Even still, "Scarlet's Walk works in even simpler ways. Musical cohesion and the leniency on sunny, mid-tempo pop hooks makes it, plainly, a great road trip record to put on. Perhaps not as important as her earlier efforts, it’s still the most enjoyable Tori Amos has been whilst delivering solid and ambitious material.