Fifteen years after her breakthrough album Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos could accurately be described as a veteran these days. Her complex and sometimes unsettling music means that she’s never really escaped the cult status bestowed upon her, yet she’s enough of a survivor to release her ninth studio album.
Amos’ career has never really taken the easy to follow route. Whether it breastfeeding a pig on the cover of Boys For Pele or recording an entire album of cover versions written by men but reinterpreted from a female point of view, she’s forever walked that tightrope between inspired lunacy and utter pretentiousness.
American Doll Posse is her most ambitious concept yet – songs sung by five female personas created by Amos who are meant to represent “the compartmentalised feminine which may have been repressed in each woman”. To take the concept to slightly ludicrous extremes, Amos has dressed up as each persona on the album artwork and has even written a series of blogs in each character.
Say what you like about the idea, but it’s certainly not something that you can ever imagine, say, Katie Melua creating. If the elaborate concept puts you off the album though, that would be a shame. For American Doll Posse is Amos’ most coherent work in years, and contains some of the best songs she’s ever written.
As ever with Amos, the lyrics here are feminist, political and complex. The most obvious statement is the opening Yo George, an attack on the US President. Bush may be an easy target, but it’s a mark of the changing attitudes in today’s America that Amos can sing “I have now an allergy to your policies it seems” and nobody bats an eyelid. Strange to think it would have earned The Dixie Chicks death threats not five years ago.
The remainder of the album is sung by the titular Posse: Isabel, Clyde, Santa, Pip and Tori. As befits the schizophrenic nature of the concept, musically it’s rather varied, bouncing from low key piano ballads to hip-shaking disco through to soft rock and orchestra accompanied laments. Devils And Gods starts off sounding like Joanna Newsom, before segueing into Body And Soul’s Tom Waits-like dirty blues groove.
The typical image of Amos as an intensely serious woman with a piano is also playfully destroyed here. There are huge bursts of rock guitar in Teenage Hustling while you can almost imagine her headbanging her way through You Can Bring Your Dog. As for jokes, the terrific Big Wheel features Amos telling us that “I am a MILF, don’t you forget” over an infectious groove.
There’s even a nod to the Balkans on Velvet Revolution, which is reminiscent of Beirut‘s debut album from last year, although the more traditional Tori is in place in the standout Dark Side Of The Sun. The latter is probably the most explicit comment on the Iraq war, featuring a chorus of “how many young men have to lay down their life and their love of their woman for some sick promise of a haven” over a typically gorgeous melody.
The orchestral backing to Girl Disappearing is also mightily effective, although the sheer length of the album (23 tracks and 78 minutes) means that some tracks, especially during the album’s second half do tend to wash over the listener a bit. You get the impression that with a stronger editor, the album could have had its running time halved and become a much more effective record.
Yet if that had happened, it wouldn’t be the Tori Amos we know and love. She’s one of the most original and intriguing artists out there at the moment, and if American Doll Posse sees her remain an acquired taste, those who have already been converted are in for a treat.