On the radio, "A Sorta Fairytale"—the first single off Tori Amos’s finest album in years—sounds overproduced and glossy, another too-well-fed visitor among all that overstuffed Top Forty fodder. As the second track on Scarlet’s Walk, it’s plaintive, yet anthemic, like the album as a whole: piano-driven rock that abounds in the colorful, cinematic sweeps and swells of good rock balladry, but never loses touch with the essential melancholia and vulnerability of the piano.
Despite her reputation as a starkly confessional songwriter, Amos has always written strong character-based pieces—think of Under the Pink (1994) with its stories of Congressional prostitutes and space dogs. Scarlet’s Walk expands on her talent for narrative, unfolding like a picaresque novel in which an unnamed narrator reflects on the lives and hopes of modern American women—a porn star ("Amber Waves"), a pair of renegade lovers ("A Sorta Fairytale"), a woman who’s packing up to save a friend from a no-good man ("Don’t Make Me Come To Vegas"), a woman who "Can’t See New York" for all the September debris. Amos eschews the sometimes Kabbalistic obscurity of her lyrics for evocative metaphor and wordplay: "Do you think just like that / you can divide this / you as yours / me as mine to before we were / us?" she asks on "Your Cloud." Each song fits into the album like a perfectly constructed chapter, moody and atmospheric. It winds up on the epic ballad "Gold Dust"—which brings to mind Little Earthquakes’ wrenching "Winter" with more gray hairs.
I was ready to write off Tori Amos as a talented songwriter and great pianist who’d reached her potential, once and for all, on her first four albums, and when I heard some idiot DJ announce her new album as a bid for widespread success by a "cult songwriter" (Little Earthquakes went platinum, but the solipsism of mainstream radio considers that a "cult success"), I felt none of the excitement I did as a teenager over Boys for Pele. But this record is packed with compelling, beautifully orchestrated moments; it’s nice to know that one icon of my adolescence, at least, can’t be counted out just yet.