Two decades after its release, Jasper Willems takes a look back at Tori Amos’ seventh album Scarlet’s Walk, her cross-country navigation of post-911 America. Disguised as a lush, wide-eyed road trip, it is actually one of the acclaimed songwriter’s most affecting and politically-charged chapters
By the time Tori Amos released Scarlet’s Walk, making deeply confrontational pop records was considered her forte. A mercurial talent who can outline the minutiae of human emotions through her thespian lyricism and classically-trained piano chops, Amos has made shattering barriers her entire living.
Whereas many solo artists often arrive at their ‘big confessional record’ a few album campaigns in, Amos’s 1992 debut Little Earthquakes opened the floodgates immediately. The album contains one of the most spine-chilling testimonials of rape ever put on tape in the a-capella sung “Me And A Gun”. On the other side of the spectrum, “Precious Things” is as much an earth-shattering primal scream as anything Nine Inch Nails or Nirvana were discharging, during an era when a lot of estranged kids found their luminaries.
Little Earthquakes was triggered by the weight of lived experience; by the time it was released, Tori Amos had already carved out an entire career cycle. A prodigious pianist at the age of five, she was allotted a scholarship at the Peabody Institute at John Hopkins University. In her teens, she flunked out and rebelled, playing juke joints and gay bars alongside her father, hoping to cash in on a career in music.
In 1986, she briefly fronted the wave pop group Y Kant Tori Read – the name was a tongue-in-cheek joke referencing her inability to read and play annotated music on the fly. Without much fanfare, the group disbanded after one album released via Atlantic Records. According to Amos, interference from studio executives caused the band’s musical direction to swerve. Still, she was under contract at Atlantic and had to deliver six more albums, with not much room to navigate her career to her own liking. Nevertheless, Little Earthquakes’ followup Under The Pink leapfrogged Amos’s stardom further, gaining worldwide notoriety with singles like “Cornflake Girl” and “God”.
After those two big breakthroughs, Amos’ music gradually dwindled in commercial appeal. Under fading spotlights, she continued to opt for bold sonic directions. After separating from her then-spouse, producer Eric Rosse, she returned in 1995 with the self-produced, wildly experimental third album Boys for Pele, her acerbic defiance of the patriarchy. The electronic/grunge hybrid From The Choirgirl Hotel and follow-up To Venus And Back dealt with the more fresh traumatic events of having three miscarriages in the span three years. For her 2001 covers album Strange Little Girls, she famously reimagined the Slayer classic “Raining Blood” into a paean for sexual liberty. With reviews getting more and more mixed, Strange Little Girls was her last album for Atlantic, in what became a somewhat of a messy breakup.
Entering her forties with a clean slate in 2002, it made sense for Amos to produce an album that in some way cross-examined her trajectory to that point. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, America happened to stand at a historical crossroads as well. During the interbellum between the Twin Towers falling and the US attacking Iraq, the pervading sentiment in the West was sympathy for the victims and a stark uproot of American patriotism.
Tori Amos, however, had myriad reasons to question this shifting climate on a deeper level. Bush-era America lashed out its powers with blunt force, which placed the country at mirror’s edge with its own colonial past. Meanwhile, Amos’ own background sits right at the intersection; she is the progeny of both Christian orthodoxy and Native American-lineage – her grandfather Calvin Clinton Copeland is of Cherokee heritage. In interviews, Amos often refers to Copeland as a source of light and guidance, instilling a willingness to see beyond the cast-iron and cut-and-dry.
To confront the atrocities of American imperialism against its native inhabitants head-on – no less at a time when America was grieving its biggest terror attacks – seemed like the most Tori Amos thing to do. But the musical climate was shifting radically as well. The burning bellow of pop’s grunge era was no longer audible, vanquished by the sugar-and-spice TRL-era. But even boy bands and pop starlets – balanced out by the cartoonish blunt-force angst of nu-metal – made way for the hip and hedonistic indie revival.
On top of that – that same year – you had ‘soft rock shining lights’ Counting Crows and Vanessa Carlton turning a once landscape defining Joni Mitchell-classic “Big Yellow Taxi” into middle-of-the-road drivel. So when Scarlet’s Walk’s first single “A Sorta Fairytale” came out, the critics were palpably on the fence. The usually enrapturing, insubordinate Tori Amos had apparently lost her edge on new label Epic, bending towards a similarly lush, soothing mainstream-friendly sound as the aforementioned.
Suffice it to say, “‘A Sorta Fairytale” was Amos’s biggest radio hit since the chart-topping Under The Pink campaign. With its spare piano motifs and sensual percussion touches, at first listen, “A Sorta Fairytale” does seem like an attempt at writing more elemental, easily hummable pop nuggets tailor-made for the radio. And, admittedly, with a single like this, it must not have been an easy sell to promote Scarlet’s Walk as this grand ambitious road trip album across post-9/11 America that spans over 74 minutes.
Add the conceptually oblique wrinkle; the fact that Amos wrote these songs mostly from the perspective of Scarlet, a wandering fictional protagonist loosely based on herself. Somewhat understandably, the reactions were – at least initially – puzzled at what Amos was trying to get across. Within the general critical consensus, artists are often praised for completely lifting the veil and turning the X-ray machine on themselves for all to see. And sure, Tori Amos certainly was considered a poster child for confessional songwriting at the time.
But make no mistake, Scarlet’s Walk is a barrier-shattering album in its own right, as the listener traces Scarlet’s soul search across the unruly subdivisions of America. You could say it’s an album of the same roving spirit as a Kerouac novel, or in musical terms, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited or Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois, which came out three years later. And though its stories are told by a fictional narrator, across Scarlet’s Walk, Amos is avidly looking for truths simmering beyond the metropolitan stirrings and monotonous interstates.
That novelistic approach might ultimately be the most remarkable thing about this record. Amos’ most undercutting revelations are covertly distilled within songs that otherwise feel understatedly simplistic and welcoming. The aforementioned “A Sorta Fairytale” is a perfect example. The song’s general thematic thread is one of two soulmates whose paths are on the verge of interspersing. There’s one little offhand quip in the last verse referencing Oliver Stone that holds more significance that you’d think: “So we go along and we said we’d fake it / Feel better with Oliver Stone / Till I almost smacked him / Seemed right that night.”
”(Oliver Stone) represents certain things,” Amos explained in an interview with the German branch of Rolling Stone in 2002. “He then wanted to use my song “Me And A Gun” for his film Natural Born Killers, and he had many reasons, but in the end I couldn’t accept them. I have this problem with Hollywood directors who want to play God. I don’t like that attitude with priests, presidents or others either. I just had to reply to that. Now I keep meeting Oliver by chance, on airplanes and such. Weird. We both went so different ways and yet they keep overlapping again and again.”
The notion of having her trauma fetishised and decontextualised – all while being confronted by that involuntarily – obviously makes Amos’ choice to ingrain that particular encounter within her own ‘sorta fairytale’ all the more cheeky and defiant. After all, she has harnessed this subversive power seven years before, using the image of her explicitly wielding a gun in a rocking chair for the cover of Boys for Pele. Breaking free from barriers – whether it is feeling trapped in Atlantic’s contract, navigating God-fearing absolutes of good vs. evil or the co-opting of her traumatic experiences – had to entail some sort of alternative route.
Scarlet’s Walk, like any great novel, film or piece of fiction, makes the familiar themes popping up in Amos’ work – sex, politics, religion and feminism – implicit in their narrative depth. Strange as it is, this album captures Amos at her most grand and ambitious, yet somehow at her most nuanced as well. The harsh reverb-drenched attack of her grand piano is forgone in favor of softer, more dulcet sounds of the wurlitzer, upright piano and organ. The instrumentation – highlighted by Pearl Jam/Soundgarden drummer Matt Chamberlain’s soulful pulse – is inviting and nourishing.
Truth be told, Scarlet’s Walk’s rootsy charm often serves as a red herring that was lost on many critics at the time. Opening song “Amber Waves” – named after Julianne Moore’s Boogie Nights-character – invites the listener in with its gullible Skynyrd-groove and Amos’ tender vocals. The saccharine, soothing fashion in which she sings “Told the Northern Lights to keep shining” echoes the great James Taylor. Indeed, it feels almost deliberate, as Scarlet seeks to comfort the titular friend in need, a troubled porn star who’s been chewed up and spit out too many times.
On the shimmering “Sweet Sangria” – truly one of the most magnetic choruses Amos has ever written –, Scarlet travels take her to Northern Texas, where she gets into an animated, politically-charged conversation with an unknown companion, briefly taking on his southern drawl. Though she admires the man’s conviction, she isn’t quite certain yet of her own endgame.
“Wednesday” channels the kind of Southern boogie Amos must have played a thousand times in her teens when she was hustling taverns across the country. Though sonically still mired in that same youthful naivéte, lyrically, the song’s protagonist reexamines some bad omens of a past relationship. “So we go from year to year with secrets we’ve been keeping / Though you say you’re not a Templar man.”
Within Scarlet Walk’s vivid travel diaries, you often get the sense of a woman retracing virgin experiences with the world-worn wisdoms of the present. As a result, the record can be listened to like a skin-deep pop record as much as one imbued with folkloric esoterica. The a-capella “Wampum Prayer” feels ceremonial in its succinctness, entwining grief over a tranquil bonfire glow. On the other side, the most baroque song on Scarlet’s Walk is “I Can’t See New York”: a Herculean heavy-hitting epic that vaguely laments the nascent disarray of the 9/11 attacks, doesn’t leave nearly as much emotional tremors in its wake as a “Crucify” or a “Winter”.
By comparison, a sanguine, candle-lit slinker like “Your Cloud” might seem like a throwaway, filler kind of tune. But within Scarlet Walk’s America-sized scope, nothing is quite what it seems. You see, along with the record’s title track, “Your Cloud” might actually be the most poignant, affecting song Amos has penned for the entire album.
Scarlet finds herself in the state of Mississippi, where one of the most vile ethnic erasures within human civilisation took place. The Cherokee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Muskogee tribes were murdered, enslaved and displaced by the European settlers in what is known as the Trail of Tears. The chorus of the song documents this in heart wrenching fashion. “A horizontal line / That runs from the map / Off your body / Straight through the land / Shooting up / Right through my heart.”
The notion of clouds being vaporised water naturally awaiting for the conditions to be condensed. It’s both a poignant and oddly romantic way of saying that – even though the segregation of these tribes during the Trail Of Tears was unfathomably heinous – those derived from these lands cannot separate from them anymore than the very atoms that make up a drop of rain. Or, as Amos probes in the chorus.“Will this horizontal line / When asked: Know how to find / Where you end / Where I begin / ‘Pick out your cloud’?”. Indeed, the many layers make it hard to keep those tear ducts in check; “Your Cloud” is an opaque alchemy of Amos’ personal connection to her Cherokee ancestors, and the ridiculous folly of dividing up land in crude straight lines.
If you were to hear “Your Cloud” on a snap judgment, you’d probably assume it to be the most straightforward love song Tori Amos has ever written. And, even with all that added historical and political subtext in mind, who’s to say that it isn’t? In many ways, within Scarlet Walk’s sprawling, 18-part exodus, that’s the bewildering beauty of it; the album never strikes like a laborious undertaking, but a breezy, open-hearted absorption on American life through and through. It’s a very short 74 minutes.
In turn, it makes your ears want to absorb and attune to its intricate revelations as well. Through the smooth, silky “Pancake”, Amos’ scathing delivery pierces through like a surge of acid through layers of dense fabric. It’s a razor-sharp beatdown of the back-alley duplicity of libertarian politicians pushing a progressive agenda. “Messiahs need people dying in their name”, she spits as if her own insides are made of brittle sandpaper.
Second single “Taxi Ride”, despite sounding even more honey sweet than “A Sorta Fairytale”, is arguably just as venomous under its breath. The song was later revealed to be about the passing of her late friend, makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, mere months before the release of Scarlet’s Walk. Scarlet takes aim at the ways her present company of women reveal their nature in the wake of grief. “You think you deserve a trust fund / Just because you want one?,” she sings, and you can almost picture a bemused ‘are you kidding me?’-grin on her face.
If there’s a climactic reveal and fourth-wall break to be detected, it happens on Scarlet’s Walk’s haunting title track. Reflecting on her travels, Scarlet attempts to summon a bittersweet resolution, no less in a land where fundamental freedoms have been systematically taken away. Her initial impulse is to just leave, evoked through the icy majesty of its opening hook. The urge to embark on some sort of fairytale, to achieve a semblance of belonging or connection, is an ever-present human quest to behold through our traversing lifetimes.
Revisiting Scarlet’s Walk, two decades after its release, shows that confrontation and escapism don’t have to be at bitter odds with one another. They can potentially become, in fact, close travel companions, not stifled by constructs such as laws and borders. Just like the titular Scarlet, lost in her wanderlust within this strange, contradictory, and unruly place called America, the listener is encouraged to set their own serpentine path within.
“”What do you plan to do with all your stories?” /The new sheriff said, quite proud of his badge / We’ll weave them / through every rocket’s red glare / And huddled masses, you just lift your lamp.”