I can’t believe it. It’s a Christmas miracle.
It’s been nearly 10 years since Tori Amos made a full-length album I can stand to listen to all the way through. She used to be (and in her best moments, she still is) one of my very favorite musicians, one whose work reaches into my life and re-orders it. Little Earthquakes is still one of the finest albums I own – even the b-sides from that record are heart-wrenching – and its two follow-ups were practically flawless, even as Amos strove to explode her trademark girl-and-a-piano sound.
And then, I’m still not sure what happened. 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel was something of a misfire, though about half of it was still excellent. Amos tinkered with electronic backdrops, and chose to rock out in some more traditional ways, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I could forgive one misstep, but that was the start of a seriously steep decline.
Her work for Epic Records, with whom she signed in 2002, has been the absolute nadir of her career. Scarlet’s Walk buried a half-decent EP under tons of dreck, and was, to that point, the worst record she’d made. She topped it (or bottomed it, or whatever) with The Beekeeper two years ago – 78 minutes, and not one decent song. It sounded to me like she’d run the whole thing through a Blandifier machine, sanding off all the rough edges I’d always loved about her. The Beekeeper retains a fascinating distinction – it’s the only Amos album with no redeeming qualities at all.
But, you know, I held on through all of this, because here and there, I found flashes of the brilliance that used to flow so effortlessly. The Welcome to Sunny Florida EP was better than all of Scarlet’s Walk. The DVD bonus track on The Beekeeper, “Garlands,” put the entire album to shame. And the live box set, The Original Bootlegs, showcased just the woman and her piano, and it was marvelous. Amos still has it, she just hasn’t proven it on record in a long time.
Advance publicity for American Doll Posse, her ninth album, didn’t really thrill me. Here was Tori, bleeding down one leg, standing in front of a church with a Bible in one hand and the word “shame” written across the other. Oooh, that’s shocking. Here was another ass-aching concept about womanhood and identity, propping up another 79-minute monster of a record that would undoubtedly be too long and too boring.
But guess what? If I have any doubt from now on that 2007 is the best year ever for music, I just need to listen to American Doll Posse, the single best piece of work Amos has turned out since Choirgirl. Yes, it’s too long, and yes, some of it is boring. But the vast majority of it virtually explodes with life – Amos is invested in this record, in a way she hasn’t been in ages, and for the first time since Boys for Pele, I can forgive her excesses and experiments, because when she’s on, she’s amazing.
American Doll Posse comes wrapped in a shaky conceptual framework that could have drowned it. Here’s the idea – Amos plays five different characters, one of them (the one striking a pose outside that church) a caricature of her own image. The others are all aspects of her and her work. Bleached-blonde photographer Isabel is political-minded, for example, while white-haired Santa (really) is sensual and sexual.
Amos seems to be making a point about confining women to one set image – these are all aspects of her, and therefore, of all women, I guess. It seems an obvious point to make – people are complicated, and more than the two-dimensional cardboard cutouts you see on television – but Amos is committed to making it. She splits Posse’s 23 songs up amidst her five characters, depending on its subject matter, and she dresses up as each character for the cover and booklet art.
You might think there would be some reward for following along, for keeping track of which character sings which song, but there isn’t. It’s sort of the point here that these are all Tori Amos songs – the characters are all aspects of her, after all – and they don’t fit together into any kind of story or thematic framework otherwise. So, blessedly, you can just ignore the whole concept entirely and enjoy the record.
And for the first time in a decade, I did enjoy it. Not only is this the first Amos album since Choirgirl that I can get all the way through in one sitting, it’s the first one since that I can’t stop listening to. And she didn’t do it by stripping everything away and returning to the girl-and-a-piano thing that I love, either – American Doll Posse is quite simply the fullest, most rocking Tori album ever, with most of the songs drenched in thick, 1970s-style guitar and fueled by some absolutely punishing drumming. But “bland” is the absolute last word you’d use to describe any of it, thank God.
Unfortunately, Posse is cluttered with a number of weak interludes, like the opener, “Yo George,” a satin slap at our Idiot in Chief. These minute-long ditties don’t do anything to improve an already overlong and scattered record, even though some of them (the stark “Devils and Gods,” for example) are pretty great. Listening to Posse straight through is like hearing a swell hour-long album and all of its b-sides on shuffle, which isn’t inherently bad, but keeps this record from being a home run.
Enough complaints, though. Posse’s first real song is “Big Wheel,” a skipping double-time rocker that sets the pace. Amos sounds invigorated right at the start, belting out the chorus with a passion she hasn’t shown in years. “Bouncing Off Clouds” is even better, lifting off the ground with ease as Amos weaves her own voice around itself again and again. It’s such a treat to hear that voice in full bloom again – she bellows all of “Teenage Hustling” with verve and force, and even takes a mid-tempo meander like “Code Red” into orbit with a few emotional moans.
Highlights are, amazingly, too many to mention, but here’s a few. “Girl Disappearing” is the only example here of her signature piano-and-strings sound, and it’s lovely, although it’s eclipsed in the beauty department by “Roosterspur Bridge,” a heartbreaking song of leaving and loss. “Father’s Son” is similarly gorgeous, and it’s buoyed, not anchored, by its electronic percussion. “Body and Soul” positively rocks, Amos taking on the chorus with all she’s got. I even like the experiments here, like the jazzy shuffle “Mr. Bad Man” and the wank-rock sex romp “You Can Bring Your Dog.”
But it is, honestly, way too long, and it doesn’t help that the boring ones are sequenced near the end. “Almost Rosey” is the low point, at track 18, plying one typical chord progression over and over for five minutes. The album actually finishes up really well, though – despite the fact that “Posse Bonus,” at track 21, makes the final three songs seem like extras, both “Smokey Joe” and “Dragon” are haunting pieces that deserve their place as the finale.
“Dragon,” especially, is great, concluding things with a couplet that sums up Amos’ girl power message with a caress instead of a smack: “Now it has come to light, the gods, they have slipped up, they forgot about the power of a woman’s love…”
I admit, I’ve been worried that Tori Amos had forgotten her own power, and that we’d never hear anything worth praising from her again. It struck me that the last time I heard a Tori album I liked this much, I was in college – I’ve been through numerous jobs in numerous states since then, taking a journey worthy of Scarlet and her walk. I’ve carried Tori’s immortal first three albums with me through all of that, and I kept believing that one day she’d do something that good again.
American Doll Posse is not that album, of course, but it comes closer than anything since, and it has renewed my faith. Amos sounds awake and alive and passionate and engaged with her muse, in ways I’d dreaded she’d never be again. Posse is the sound of one of the world’s best artists waking up, taking stock, and getting about the business of being who she is again. It is her best work in far too long, and the sweetest surprise of 2007 thus far.
Welcome back, Tori. Welcome back.
Next week, letters from beyond the grave.
See you in line Tuesday morning.