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The Boston Phoenix (US)
November 14, 2002
Tori Amos and her Scarlet's Walk
by Annie Zaleski
PERSONAL TOUCH: Amos's candor about her domestic life and her ability to bring that candor to bear on her songwriting have always been strengths.
"I've got so many errands to run," explained Tori Amos at the start of a phone call from New York City in August, when she was setting the groundwork for the release of her seventh album, Scarlet's Walk (Epic). Still a resident of sleepy Cornwall, Amos continued, "I have to pick up a costume for Tash [her daughter, Natashya] -- they're doing a nautical weekend in Cornwall, so I'm flying back for the weekend to England with a costume for her. If you were with me right now, we could go to FAO Schwarz and get Hello Kitty stickers. That was her one request. 'Stickers from 'merica, Mommy!'" Amos says this in her best little-girl voice.
Amos's candor about her domestic life and her ability to bring that candor to bear on her songwriting have always been strengths. Her casual complaints about the service at a restaurant in "The Waitress" and her siren call to women to assert their voices in "Girl" are equally part of what has made her songs so compelling. For all her vocal quirks, she's always been accessible -- the kind of songwriter who's able to share her workaday frustrations and more exotic longings.
Her brute honesty has also had its downside. She's been criticized by some for exploiting her own misfortunes, most controversially in 1992's "Me and a Gun," with its graphic depiction of her own rape. But to social misfits and sensitive souls, Amos -- who comes to the Providence Performing Arts Center this Sunday and to the Tsongas Arena in Lowell this Tuesday -- is a comforting friend and oracle, someone capable of articulating hidden insecurities, pains, and emotions. When she deviated from that path on last year's Strange Little Girls (Atlantic), a concept album that had her playing the role of a different fictional character on each track, her songwriting seemed to be missing something crucial.
At the same time, she's run the risk of revealing too much of herself in her songs, of becoming a caricature of the Tori that her fans demand. It's a problem she's acutely aware of. "There are things we hide. People may think they really know me simply by hearing my songs and knowing my history, but that's not enough. There are other things we keep to ourselves -- sometimes even people that you marry and fully open up to don't know everything."
On Scarlet's Walk, she balances her need to personalize with her desire to protect herself by inventing a persona named Scarlet whose trip across the United States parallels Amos's own American journey in the fall of 2001, when she was touring in support of Strange Little Girls. As a bereft Scarlet says in "Wednesday," "Can someone help me . . . I think that I'm lost here/Lost in a place called America."
Scarlet's Walk is a musical journey as well. Resembling at times the rich, velvety productions of 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic) and at others the stark simplicity of 1994's Under the Pink (Atlantic), the disc consolidates Amos's musical past. "I Can't See New York" and "Carbon" float with airy keyboards; "Strange" uses mournful Fender Rhodes electric-piano tones, sweeping strings, and effects-laden guitar textures; "Harmonica" helps reinforce the yearning of "Sweet Sangria" and "Taxi Ride." "A Sorta Fairytale" is a vintage Tori single, exploding with glittering piano chords and a cooing chorus tinged with sadness. The waltz and wicked cowboy-funk bass sections that alternate in "Wednesday" bring to mind the rockist leanings of 1996's Boys for Pele (Atlantic).
At times stripped down to little more than piano and voice, at others lushly orchestrated, Scarlet's Walk is held together by some of her hardest-hitting and most emotionally direct songwriting. Some of this emotional rawness -- and certainly the album's focus on America -- can be traced directly back to her state of mind during that 2001 tour, which took place in the wake of September 11. American history and landmarks are woven through the disc. "Fairytale" finds Scarlet speeding along Highway 101 in California; "Wampum Prayer," "Your Cloud," and "Virginia" allude to the plight of Native Americans. There are even references to September 11 in the frantic "New York."
Amos was in New York on September 11, 2001, and she recalls the experience in typically impressionistic terms. "I remember in a weird way being in New York City . . . the smell of her [America], and her being attacked . . . being in the same city where she was attacked . . . I started to question, as did everybody else, is she being represented right? Because how does the world see her? I began to see that the world as I traveled sees her as a bully. And that's not who she is to me. And that really ripped my heart out."
Scarlet eventually locates inner strength as she discovers her version of America. And on the disc's final track, "Gold Dust," she seems to find what she's been looking for by giving birth to a child, an experience that puts her in touch with the nostalgic longing adults have for childhood. "We are looking back/And then we'll understand/We held gold dust in our hands," she sings. But it's what Scarlet, and perhaps Amos too, learns from her travels -- from recovering what the title track alludes to as "medicine now forgotten" -- that forms the real backbone of Scarlet's Walk. "We've been able to take America's resources and take what we wanted, without really taking her richest gift, and that is her medicine," Amos remarks. "She had great medicine, medicine of the soul, and it's very healing."
The "medicine" metaphor appears to be Amos's way of accounting for how the United States pulled together in the wake of September 11. Of course, for a poetic writer, putting it in such simple, direct terms would be out of character. "It was a time, as you know, when people's masks were down," she recalls of her tour last fall. "There was very little make-up, if you remember. That's what I found with people coming to the shows. When I say that, I mean emotional make-up -- people were trying to express what they were feeling with the loss. Sometimes it was truly the loss of someone who had been in the twins, or on the planes. Sometimes it was the loss of feeling of safety. So many people were talking about their feelings for America, almost as if she were a friend. People would write letters like I had never gotten, just talking about what they believed in and asking questions and trying to find out about this place called America. Wanting to know more about it. They were expressing themselves."
So, who is Scarlet meant to represent? Has the paint dried on Amos's own palette of personal anguish, forcing her to look to fictional roles? After all, the flame-haired patron saint of confessional angst is now happily married and immersed in motherhood. Or could it be that Scarlet's soul searching is a thinly veiled metaphor for Amos's own inner turmoil?
"It's very handy that we wear the same shoes, Scarlet and I," Amos explains. There certainly are plenty of parallels between Scarlet and Tori, not the least of which is motherhood. Then again, using a fictional character enables Amos to detach herself from the drama that unfolds on Scarlet's Walk, to separate herself from her lyrics. And that's what makes the album so compelling. Because though there's much to be read into the similarities between Tori and Scarlet, there's also plenty that Amos leaves to your imagination.
Tori Amos performs this Sunday, November 17, at the Providence Performing Arts Center, and this Tuesday, November 19, at the Tsongas Arena in Lowell. Call (617) 228-6000.
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