Concept Album Corner - 'Scarlet's Walk' by Tori Amos
America is a nation whose history matches its present state: confused, uncertain, troubled, corrupted, and painfully insecure, masked behind vague and overblown ‘accomplishments’ that might mean nothing today. Perhaps the only difference is just how America’s change has affected its people and vice-versa, particularly its ‘every-person’s. The common Joe or Jane who pays their taxes, has a home, buys groceries, and cares for a family. Not movie stars, not street bums, not celebrities, not beggars. The person who is merely a nobody to the rest of the world, sitting by and watching the triumphs and troubles of the nation they live in.
These days, it seems that a discussion revolving around America in any way can be an uncomfortable and heated one, a broad topic that captures many divisive issues and ideas like politics, religion, economics, education, authority figures, materialism, gender roles, taboos, public decency, and more. So it seems fitting for artists, most of whom were actively seeking out controversy, to voice their opinions on the Land of Liberty in their respective mediums. One such artist is the eccentric and uncompromising singer/songwriter Tori Amos.
Born the daughter of a Christian Reverend in Newton, North Carolina, Tori was one in a handful of artists who seemed to be especially gifted in music. I refrain from using the term ‘child prodigy’, though that is a pretty good term to describe an artist who began playing piano at the age of two, composed instrumental piano pieces at the age of five, and was given a scholarship to the Prepatory Division of the Peabody Conservatory of Music (which was discontinued for her interest in rock and pop music as well as her dislike of reading sheet music). At twenty-three, she formed an astonishingly short-lived band called Y Kant Tori Read in reference to the sheet music matter from earlier. Though they produced one record, it flopped commercially and hasn’t yet seen the light of day again, regarded as something of an old shame to Miss Amos. Though her contract required her to produce a couple more albums, she began her solo career and became the female pop/alternative artist she is today.
Amos’ music walks along the very fine border between baroque pop and straightforward alternative rock, occasionally bringing other musical subgenres into her works like electronic and gospel. Her subject material touches on topics like feminine sexuality, rape, war, betrayal, religion, masturbation, homosexuality, and ‘other things’. As Richard Croft once described her, think of an ‘American Bjork’, or a ‘modern Kate Bush’. Amos’ fanbase is very devoted and reasonably so. As a person, Amos is kind, eccentric, funny, eccentric, open-minded, eccentric, talented, and very eccentric. Many of her albums veer into concept album territory, but only a select few are certified as being so, definitely devoted to a theme or idea. Scarlet’s Walk, a story of Tori Amos’ alter ego’s journey through America, is one of them.
1.) Amber Waves – Tori’s vocals have the ability to change from softly passionate pleas to airy and careless whispers on a whim, both from the voices of a broken young woman (not to sound insulting or condescending to Miss Amos). The piano of this piece is played like something from a lonesome yet hopeful pop number, accompanied by an electronic instrument that sounds somehow discordant yet appropriate. Throughout the album, Scarlet’s thoughts and idea on America are symbolized as a relationship gone sour with her lover, be it through adultery, abuse, or simply breaking up. Here, Scarlet is talking about a friend of hers named Amber, who may or may not also be a symbol of America (‘Amber Waves of Grain’ come to mind). Amber is portrayed as an archetypal ‘Hooker With a Heart of Gold’ character, taken by a man of power to turn her into something wonderful. But that something wonderful is only a thing meant to please that man of power and his people. The lyrics To every boy’s sweet dream/With their paper cuts and He fixed you up real good/Till I don’t know you anymore send that thought home well enough. ‘Amber Waves’ might also refer to the glow of the Northern Lights, which Scarlet’s friend tells her to look for. Tell the Northern Lights to keep shining/Lately it seems like they’re drowning. Scarlet still holds out hope for America, but that hope is faltering.
2.) A Sorta Fairytale - Once again, the piano and electronic sounds of this piece are soft, but considerably less hopeful and more melancholy. On the surface, it is a song of a relationship gone sour between Scarlet and her lover, how both went in knowing that they’d be together for a long time, knowing that they’d reach some nasty times. They just didn’t expect it to be this nasty. Once again, though, her relationship with her lover mimics that of her relationship with America. This could go back to the initial hopes and dreams of America’s first settlers, a sort of fairytale world where they could build a new land for themselves. But as time has come to show, their fairytale world came with a price, having to steal it from others to make it into their own. Now, that fairytale world still lives and thrives due to an ugly history that it tries to sweep under the rug. Throughout the album, one will notice that Amos alludes to Native Americans quite often, which sounds perfectly reasonable. And Like a good book/I [Scarlet] can’t put this day back, trying to move on from a relationship gone so sour. But the listener has to question why Scarlet wants to forget in the first place. Is it because even in spite of everything having gone wrong, Scarlet still cares so much?
3.) Wednesday – The melancholy is lost in the piano and replaced with a jazz tune joined by tap and kick of a snare drum, soon joined by a disco guitar noise. Again, the lyrics (in part) deal with Scarlet’s sour relationship, but also go into her actual journey across America’s countryside, accompanied by a Persian cat named Cajun, carefree and perhaps even lazy. Still, she thinks of her husband in regret: Seems as if we’re circling/for very different reasons/but one day, the Eagle has to land. Again, referring to America, this could be a song about the willful ignorance of Americans that causes them to bat an eye to the possible fall of something mighty, hoping that doing so will make things better. Scarlet’s journey in this piece reminds me very much of the novel American Gods by Neil Gaiman (which would be a fair comparison, seeing as Tori and Neil are very close friends): traveling across the little attractions of America, painted in a manner that makes little things into something mystical. Tori does so by changing the tempo to a ¾ time, the piano notes switching to something tinkling and light like the footsteps of a fairy on water.
4.) Strange – The piano is overshadowed by the electronic noises again, downbeat but not melancholy, per se. The tone of this piece is closer to ‘Amber Waves’ in its glimpses of hope sprinkled throughout. Scarlet begins to have a moment of introspection or perhaps a strong feeling of alienation. She finds it strange that her view of how America/her husband doesn’t seem to match its/his current image. She’s left uncertain if she has changed or if the world around her has changed. Her lover, it seems, is desperately trying to hold onto the relationship, but whether its out of true love or to stick with the status quo is left in the air. Scarlet can’t tell if the way she sees things are wrong or right, sticking around the party, but leaving by the song’s end, following her instinct. Tori’s songs don’t entirely hit melancholy or hopeful on the mark, but she can perfectly present discomfort, which is certainly meant as a compliment to her magnificent descriptive skills.
5.) Carbon – Soft is the opening of light piano chords that race and flutter like a group of birds through the clouds, joined by the twanging of an acoustic guitar and the heavy beat of conga drums. The opening lyrics, Carbon-made/found her at the end of a chain, could refer to a nature sight of America, a cave perhaps. Many sights are listed such as Gunner’s View and Free Fall, all of which refer to sights where the bloody battles between Settlers and Native Americans occurred. The image presents a sight of an America with a tattered torn past, a land at wit’s end, having reached rock bottom. And Amos still asks for our hope for her: Keep your eyes on her horizon. This could be one of the few songs on the album that hits sorrow and true beauty with pitch-perfect accuracy, one of the best songs without a doubt.
6.) Crazy – Back to her pop-song sounds, considerably more upbeat, her voice opening and echoing the piece like a far away call, hearkening us back to discomfort and how people deal with it, especially in romance. It makes sense to make romance the target for discomfort here, as it is one of the most intimate and powerful yet vague and faltering feelings in human nature, blurring lines between love and friendship, whether it’s right to be in deep love or if it’s foolish. Is it crazy to want the most extreme emotions imaginable? Like most of her songs, Tori leaves something like that ambiguous for her audience. Scarlet finds herself in a relationship like this with her lover. It only just now started to hit me that perhaps the conflicting view of America in songs like ‘Carbon’ and ‘Amber Waves’ (at least, conflicting in terms of the rest of Scarlet’s Walk) might mean that her husband might not be America, but the authority figures of America, the politicians, the white settlers, the innovators, the layers of laws. She let’s them get away with what they want, zipping your [Scarlet’s] religion down to suit their needs, because she just has to know how this story will end.
7.) Wampum Prayer – Amos sings a capella on this track, her voice lilting and wavering to an old Indian prayer, recounting on the blood that has spilled across the land for that sorta fairytale world. The track is remarkably short yet poignant. I’m personally always enthralled by solo singing pieces, moved by how much one can convey just by the sound of their voice.
8.) Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas – The piano in this piece is considerably lower on the scale, joined by conga drums again to create a dark, exotic sound like that of a tango ballad. ‘Don’t Make Me Come to Vegas’ was a piece written with Amos’ niece in mind, who was in a relationship similar to one that Amos had been in and perhaps the one that Scarlet is in now. Perhaps it is another piece directed toward her friend Amber, in the context of the album, at least. She is basically telling her daughter ‘Don’t do this to yourself, don’t do what I have done, don’t make me come to Vegas.’
9.) Sweet Sangria – The drum beat that opens ‘Sweet Sangria’ is closer to that of Alternative Rock rather than pop. The low electronic noises jazz up the piece like a nightclub party scene, her own voice sounding manufactured with the effect of a dual-singing voice. One thinks of an exotic drink at a party at a fancy Mexican restaurant, given Amos’ lyrics describing the setting. The song is a meditation on how peace and unity with others seems a futile and even foolish notion to most of America. Why does someone have to lose? By this point, a lot of the songs simply set scenes much like Madness’ The Liberty of Norton Folgate, meant to show sights and places that Scarlet is visiting.
10.) Your Cloud – This track goes back to a more jazz-oriented style, playing like a lounge piece with piano and drum snares. The song details a separation, a divorce, only made official and law by words written on paper, creating instant boundaries. But still, things have to be shared between the people being separated, be they in groups or in couples. Sharing memories, sharing objects, land, feelings. This is probably one of the most beautiful songs about separation I’ve ever heard, describing the pain of not only losing someone, but losing part of yourself, pointing out the madness of splitting who keeps what. If the rain has/to separate itself/does it say/pick your cloud? We all share things of value with loved ones, so it makes the feeling of losing part of yourself much more bitter and much worse.
11.) Pancake – Seemingly odd title for a song and certainly an odd title for its subject matter. The subject, mixed in with pop rhythms once more, focuses on the hatred that many religions feel for one another in spite of them sharing many similarities. This was an album that came out in 2002, a year after the tragedy that was 9/11. For America, religious issues have been a very hot-button topic, especially in dealing with that of other countries’ religions. I’m not sure who’s fooling who here could be that of religious uncertainty. Messiahs need people dying in their name brings to mind the suicide bombings. You give me yours/I give you mine/Cause I can look your God right in the eye. As soon as Scarlet thinks about this little epiphany, she leaves the stall of the Diner where she thought about this and hears that her husband ordered her a pancake. Seemingly meaningless on its own, but when one learns that Amos’ husband at the time did something similar, effectively making her forget the big epiphany she’d just had, one can imagine the look on Tori and Scarlet’s faces.
12.) I Can’t See New York – The piano is once again complemented with electronic sounds, but sounds that are quiet and whirring like smoke in the wind. The whole opening is eerie and hauntingly beautiful. Amos’ voice echoes like a ghosts’, singing once more on the 9/11 suicide bombings from the perspective of multiple people after Death, caught in the world that America dreamed of having. From here/no lines are drawn/from here/no lands are owned. The piano pounds down as the song progresses, growing intense and simply gorgeous, even accompanied by a Gilmour-esque guitar number. Again, one of the best songs on this whole album.
13.) Mrs. Jesus – Once again, focusing on America’s religious fixations, especially Christianity, there seems to be a more thoughtful and positive light shining on the simple and spiritual aspects of religion in the country. A religion that, while many have died for it and falter on their faith for it, promotes kindness and love toward others, represented by Scarlet hitchhiking with the titular character, a kind old lady. Scarlet meditates on her own faith that…may or may not be represented by two of her influences: Led Zeppelin and The Beatles. While the lyrics The Gospel changes meaning/if you follow John or Paul/and could you ever Let It Be are certainly a bit more ambiguous, the Zeppelin references are a bit more prominent, with references to a stairway to Heaven and a flute piece joining Amos’ singing. Then again, these could be the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist.
14.) Taxi Ride – Contrary to the pop beat of this tune, the vocals that waver through the piece are closer to the rather depressing story of the song. Scarlet comes to Chicago, visiting a bar where many women are mourning the death of a gay friend of theirs…or are they? Right from the get go, some of the mourners may or may not be actually mourning, with Lily dancing on the table and what not. People come to funerals to commemorate the dead and the beloved, but to what point does it just become going through the motions? At what point is it just another meaningless routine to somebody? Just another dead f*g to you, that’s all/Just another light missing/in a long taxi line. No joke, this is probably one of the more depressing songs I’ve listened to in a while. Quite sad that perhaps at your own funeral, nobody will truly give a damn and just wash the whole thing away and forget about you like the rest of the dead. That in the end, nothing you had done mattered in the long run…
15.) Another Girl’s Paradise – Once more back to more alternative styles, ‘Another Girl’s Paradise’ is a song about envy, Scarlet desiring a life that her friends have made. It may even be a song about finding out that her husband is certainly cheating on her: Does it all come down to/the thing one girl fears in the night/is another girl’s paradise, seeing that another woman is wrapped in her husband’s arms. Desire has taken hold of her and does what desire does best, give you longing for something you don’t have in the most twisted ways. She even desires not to desire. Scarlet is finally torn at wit’s end and goes for her titular walk…
16.) Scarlet’s Walk – The titular track of the album, sticking again to alternative and even a bit of electronic, the opening sounds tapping like piano keys, the sliding of a guitar echoing in the distance with Tori’s voice, the tone ominous and moody. While the opening lines Leaving Terra make me think of Gone With the Wind, it could also mean that she’s leaving land, terra meaning earth. Scarlet symbolism, as it might be in this album, could very well be that of America’s history of betrayal to the Native Americans by the settlers and colonists. Scarlet walks, leaving an invisible, ever lingering trail of America’s ugly past, despite the Sherriff (an authority figure), proudly waving his badge and saying that the land is in good hands. The settlers became more than guests, they moved in. They became house masters. The song grows from intense to quiet like a sine wave, hitting tragedy and sorrow magnificently.
17.) Virginia – Scarlet, having hit rock bottom, finds herself in Virginia, thinking on the moment where the Indians truly lost their land and how America will affect its newcomers and vice versa. It ends on a bittersweet note, looking out of the caves of misery at a shimmering wave of hope. The piano notes echo each other like ghost movements. The great state of Virginia, warped and twisted by the white man, no longer remembers its old, mystical name given by the Natives. But as always/the thing that he loves/he will change, just as Her body covers him all the same. Much like people, America has changed, but will keep changing just as the world around her will do. Everything changes and loses its meaning over time, but can grow new ones over time.
18.) Gold Dust – Without a doubt, best song on the album. The pianos regain that light, fluttering feeling of quiet magic in the night-time, but combined by the rise and swell of a full string orchestra, like a Miyazaki movie piece. The subject sifts through sights and sounds that prove that Tori/Scarlet was here, moving through her good times and happy moments. It becomes especially beautiful and heartwarming if one thinks of Amos’ daughter, if this song was written for her. And the sun on your face/I’m freezing that frame and especially the final piece that is on the verge of bringing out tears: how did it go so fast/You’ll say as we’re looking back/and then we’ll understand/we held gold dust in our hands. I have held for the longest time that some of the best emotional songs one can write are songs of nostalgia and regret. Amos has more than mastered the art of nostalgia in this songs, the orchestra swells soft and quiet even in its most intense moments.
Tori Amos’ style is certainly an acquired taste to most listeners. A quiet voice for a pop artist and especially an alternative artist is very rarely heard of. Amos seeks to bring forth the rawest and most powerful of emotions through pure subtlety rather than pure passion. The passion is still there, but it isn’t prancing about flamboyantly. It is walking through, sometimes skipping, letting the wind blow through with it, letting the environment build itself around it. Amos made one of the best decisions in depicting a character who suffers a sour relationship to symbolize the relationship of America’s past and present.
Most will debate on how well the idea of America is treated in this album and how well it is portrayed. I’d rather not even go into the possible subject of feminism that perpetrates through this album, admittedly out of cowardice that I might piss somebody off when I know little of what I’m talking about. But if only for the music, this is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous albums I’ve had the honor of listening to. I look forward to hearing more of Amos’ work.