408 · 21 November 02
Tori Amos: Scarlet's Walk
Scarlet's Walk came out on Tuesday, 29 October 02. At 2:06am on Thursday, 31 October 02, I posted the 405th issue of this weekly column. According to my mail archives, the first dismayed email asking why I hadn't written about Scarlet's Walk yet was sent to me at 3:45am, my time, that same morning. I do act like a music reviewer occasionally, so I'll assume you thought I got the album weeks ago, and have been holding my review to comply with some press embargo. But I'm not on those mailing lists, by my own design. I go to the record store on Tuesdays and buy things the same way you do, or the way you would if you had completely abandoned any notion of self-control in the matter of record-buying. As difficult as this may be to credit, I didn't even listen to the album that night. I was doing other things. I looked through the pile of material in the limited-edition box, and put the charm aside (I got the star with the crescent moon cut out of the middle) so I wouldn't lose it. I listened to the album once through, distractedly, at work on Wednesday. I couldn't possibly have written about it Wednesday night. What would I have been prepared to say? "It's kind of mutedly consistent."
Whatever emptiness there is in your life, whatever hours unaccounted, you may fill them with this album. You'll need an hour and a quarter to listen to it once, and if there's an upper limit to how many repetitions it can support, I haven't had time to come anywhere near it yet, and it's not that I haven't been trying. Some of the times you listen, you can fixate on Tori's voice and her piano-playing, the way you always would have. For variety, some of the other times, you can concentrate on Jon Evans' smooth, humming bass. Others, Matt Chamberlain's restrained drumming. Tori's Rhodes. Backing vocals, tendrils of guitar, mysterious background noises you can only hear if you turn it up. The overall production. The pace, the scale, the duration, the transitions, the beginning, the end. The band dynamics, Tori's tightrope-walk between leadership and selflessness. Take a few repetitions to learn what the words sound like, and piece together what you can of Scarlet's journey and her friends. Take a few to read what Tori says the words are, and a few more to find all the places where she may be hiding something. The limited edition has fanfold polaroids, and an annotated map, and stickers, and a DVD. The companion disc has forty minutes of Tori talking about the songs in a mesmerizingly sleepy voice. Go to see her when her tour is in range, and read the reports and set lists on the Dent from when it isn't. The disc gets you into more of her web site, too, and once you exhaust that there are a dozen more sites meticulously archiving every Tori detail and reference it is conceivable to archive. I'm an obsessive music generalist, but as a Tori fan I barely rate. Verify for yourself that the lines on the map cross all fifty states, and maybe spend an evening or two converting it into a board game. Play the album twice in every different player available to you, and at least four times on headphones. Close your eyes and listen to it again.
Here are some good things in the world that humans are responsible for: the way tapioca pearls pop out of the big plastic bubble-tea straws into your mouth in little clusters of three or four; the red and blue lights on Volkswagen dashboards; Ryo's mother's oden bar in Princess Nine and the bridge in Love Hina; Emmitt Smith setting the rushing record; custom Scrabble boards; Thanksgiving; politeness; wood-burning stoves; down comforters and snooze buttons; frailty, courage and CAT scans; the way paper folds; mail rules; bow-ties you tie yourself and shoes you don't; the way all suitcases come with wheels and those telescoping handles now; all the health food you don't eat; Natural Capitalism and Midnight in the Garden of Evel Knievel; the Criterion Collection and the Viking Portable Library; "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" and "The Ghost at Number One"; Google and eBay and the page at usps.com that tells you how much it costs to mail $17 in cash to Kyoto; the way people venture out of their homes to attempt something they would like to see done; the way somebody looks at you in between the moment in which they realize that you're no longer a stranger and the moment in which they decide whether that's an improvement or not. The kick pulse in Chitose Hajime's "Hummingbird" and the snare twang in Tori's "Taxi Ride".
I wondered, after the hijackings, how long it would be before anybody figured out how to respond to it in art. Within a few weeks, folk poets with web sites and MP3 encoders had starting posting the terrible versions, and I waited for the good ones. And waited. And waited. Various people have found interesting uses of the light where the shadows used to fall, but those are almost second-order responses that skip the first-order ones. Steve Earle's "John Walker's Blues" was a gutsy and worthwhile approach to a difficult face of the subject, but disappointingly ragged and unappealing as a song. Laurie Anderson's live album, recorded defiantly in New York barely a week after the towers fell, is arresting, but mostly for the big prescience of "Here come the planes", which isn't exactly what I mean by "response". Tori's 2001 tour began in Florida on 28 September, was in New York for three nights in mid-October, and wound its way out to San Diego by late November. We may not have realized it, but in our pain and confusion, we sent Tori Amos out to check on the country, and Scarlet's Walk is her report. It's frequently hard to follow, even when it isn't being deliberately evasive or tangential, but if we wanted journalism, we should have sent Bill Moyers. This album isn't a census, it's a diary, and the map notwithstanding, it's less a geography of the country Scarlet walked through than it is an examination of the marks the country made on Scarlet as she did her survey. It is de Tocqueville's Democracy in America remade in the melted-together forms of Koyaanisqatsi and Peter Greenaway's A Walk Through H, or a "riverrun, past..." that follows the Mississippi and the Hudson and the Pecos instead of the Liffey. Tori finds as much old blood as new, as much empty space between lovers as on the WTC lots, and if we're honest (and smart), we'd distrust anybody who claimed otherwise. There is only one song that confronts the attacks directly, and even it turns out to be a love song caught up in smoke. But this album is the response I wanted, all the same. Various ideas have been labeled, in the past year, as things that would mean the terrorists won. I don't think there was ever any chance of terrorism winning, in my moral system, but for me Tori's America proves exactly how badly they lost.
When I came back from California, this time, it had become winter in New England. All the leaves from my trees are lying on the ground around my car, or slowly decaying into the ivy in my back yard. The gas rates went up, the clocks went back, the serious jackets and the windbreakers have exchanged places from the coat closet to the hooks in the hall. Soon I'll be making lists, and taking all the vacation days I have left, and getting ready to mark another year. Summers never feel like summers to me as a grown-up, but winters almost compensate. I want it to snow, gently, for four months solid, so we have nothing to do but look out at it through windows and wait. I've been teaching myself to like tea, and I've got extra blankets this year, and a season's supply of movies with people standing at traffic lights in Tokyo or Taipei. I'm ready to fall in love with dead heroines, and read recipes for soups I'll never make. I'm ready.
In Providence, Tori played a beautiful old theater with some dull new acronym. Her kaleidoscope spotlights played over the gilded walls and up into the balcony, and when the first encore started the daring girls from the back rows rushed up to kneel raptly in the aisles at the front. But there was something wrong with the sound, no subsonic roll-off on the bass maybe, so that there was too much air moving around unrelated to the notes in the songs, and Tori's piano too often got lost in the turbulence. The woman next to me overflowed the confines of her own seating structure, so I had a choice of sitting forward with my elbows on my knees, or else waiting for her to raise her right arm to fiddle counterproductively with the mini-disc recorder with which she was attempting to bootleg the show, so that I could quickly wedge my left one down below the level of the arm rest before she plopped hers back over the rest again. In Lowell, two nights later, Tori played a hockey rink, and the lights could only flicker into rafter gloom and over the Pepsi logos on the scoreboard. We sat on folding chairs pointing forty degrees off the viewing axis, and I almost got in a fight with the guy who cut into the quarter-mile line right behind us when we were almost to the door. But they got the mix right, and I was a few rows closer, and she did "Silent All These Years", and I won't have to go back to Lowell for at least another year.
I didn't vote, this election. I'd planned to, and I always quite like the experience of filling out my ballot in a wobbly folding booth in the auxiliary gym of a junior high school over in what passes for our Portuguese neighborhood. But when I sat down the night before to figure out what I was voting for, I realized I didn't have an opinion on a single issue at stake. I didn't know any of the candidates for office and didn't care about their offices, and could formulate a self-convincing but urgency-less argument on either side of any of the ballot questions. I don't particularly mind paying a little state income tax, personally, but I wouldn't try to impose my willingness on anybody else. I think I'm supposed to be in favor of bilingual education, but given how hard I'm finding Japanese as an adult, I can see the argument for dumping kids into immersion classes while they're still young enough for that to be effective. And a non-binding referendum on medical marijuana? Wouldn't it be more valuable to vote on which Urusei Yatsura character each Supreme Court justice most resembles, or which five WUSA players one should hypothetically be allowed to sleep with without relationship repercussions? Lorrie Fair and Tiffany Roberts, certainly, and I better not say my other three since they're Breakers players and I sit right behind the bench, but at least I'm not apathetic.
It doesn't seem like the little star charm should matter to me, but somehow I'm almost incapacitatingly enchanted by it. There are a bunch of different kinds of objects in the limited-edition boxes, but the largest number are these pewter charms in various Tori-esque designs. They aren't exclusive, they're made by a woman in Wisconsin, and you can order them in bulk from her web site for seventy-nine cents each. I don't wear this sort of jewelry, and don't even own a chain to put the thing on, so it's been sitting here on my desk, on a small cork coaster that came with an Ayumi Hamasaki album. I glance over at it, as I'm working on something else, and smile helplessly. I don't know the exact ratio of charm designs to units made, but in lieu of that math I'm left to imagine that Tori has divided us into scattered tribes, and I now have to search out all my star-charm brethren and reunite them.
I don't know why this didn't occur to me before, but the perfect restaurant size is very small. If a food enterprise requires anything more than one or two cooks, one other person to handle non-food logistics, and seats for as many people as they can serve at once, you've probably lost control and begun to destabilize the project. The menu should be short enough that you can post it on a wall, and focused enough that everyone knows what they're there to eat, anyway. These guidelines will put all the battalion chefs in their hotel bistros out of business, but it serves them right for making complicated crap nobody really needs. No loud music, no shouting, no reservations, no attitudes. I want to see the food being prepared, I want to see the other people eating it, and when I stand up at the end I want to look the cook in the eye and express sincere and specific thanks. I don't want food by committee, intermediated by superfluous support staff, any more than I want ghost-written business-strategy books based on labored metaphorical anthropomorphism, or factory-prefab pop records extruded by anonymous clone armies. I want to feel as proud of the world, after every meal, as I feel after a five-dollar carnitas burrito at Boca Grande on Mass Ave, or forty dollars of aji, saba, sake, toro, an kimo and tobiko at Ino Sushi in the Japan Center.
My new company, once they get through all the paperwork for acquiring my current company, has better corporate colors. My current company's colors are teal, purple, and a vibrant orange. These are fun colors to paint a lobby, but not so useful for elegant user-interface design. Somewhere in the course of the last six years I snuck in a kind of pale sky-blue, and a matte, navy-ish darker blue, and have been gradually pushing the official colors off into the corners. The new company uses blue and black. I can work with blue and black.
Scarlet's Walk is a whole-album album, not a singles collection, but it seems to me there are at least half a dozen songs that should be able to stand on their own. "Amber Waves" is probably the closest to an old-style Tori piano song, all undulating tempos and cryptic exhortations, and I like to imagine that the porn-star theme means I'm not the only one who thought Paula Marshall's character on Sports Night looked disconcertingly like Tori. "a sorta fairytale" is more measured, and more representative of the album's band idiom, and the only weird thing about using it as the advance single is that the radio-edit cuts out a whole verse and suffers for it. "Wednesday" is constructed inside-out, the verses bouncy and the choruses drifting, but the payoffs when the drums and scrinchy guitar come in are electric, and the last line is the welcome message to the rest of the album. "don't make me come to Vegas" is an uncanny combination of sultry and menacing, with beautiful slithery backing vocals on the choruses. "Your Cloud" is an impeccable lullaby. You can spend an entrancing evening working out whether you think "I can't see New York" or "Gold Dust" is more haunting. And "Taxi Ride" is just magical beyond all reason, an object lesson in production clarity and chorus whirls, and nearly reusing the title of Jane Siberry's immortally aching love song for a solid, rumbling, pealing, semi-folk-rock strut is a gesture as audacious as remaking My Dinner With Andre with Jackie Chan and calling it Citizen Kane.
Here are some gratuitous examples of wearyingly banal minor evil: people who pull out quickly after an ambulance goes by and try to get past the cars that had pulled over ahead of them; advertisements that cite "your favorite" something, particularly with a classifier that's unrealistically generic or specific, like "now offering your favorite beverages", or "all your favorite hypoallergenic air-mattress cleansers"; the articles written at midday, every day, attempting to ascribe significance to the morning's stochastic stock-market fluctuations; bureaus or corporations that attempt to promulgate their own nicknames, like the Department of Public Works stenciling "The Works" on all their trucks, or Kentucky Fried Chicken trying to go by "KFC"; the fact that no airline has thought to mount the seats in their planes on tracks, so that in a quarter-full flight they could slide all the unused ones to the ends of the sections and give the remaining passengers humane legroom; cropped movies of any kind, but most especially cell animation, where the cropping is cutting out details at the edges of the frame that some person had to physically draw there; political parties; cable-television fees; talk radio; the insane American notion that people only need ten or fifteen days off from work in a whole year.
Scarlet Stories, the commentary disc, is a fascinating artifact all by itself. You can find transcripts of it on the web easily enough, but listening to it is very different than reading the words. On the bonus DVD, bits of Tori's commentary for a couple songs are laid over the songs themselves, with some booklet-session pictures (but not, sadly, the ingeniously warped promo video for "a sorta fairytale") on the screen, but Scarlet Stories is just Tori talking. She has something to say about each song (including a discussion of "wampum prayer" that's quite a bit longer than the actual track), and the whole set takes as long as most albums would. Do you have the patience to listen to her simply talk for that long? The production treatment is more or less the same as on Tori's singing, with every nuance of breath rendered, but Tori singing sounds like a singer, and Tori talking sounds like a short-circuited AI yoga instructor. Her weird habit of slurring every thirtieth word in some unanticipated direction is at least four times as unnerving when there's no melody to motivate it, and she segues seamlessly from concrete to wildly abstract as if totally unaware of the effect. The track indices are also not demarcated in any audible manner, so unless you're diligently watching the readout on your player the whole time, you will find yourself struggling to tell the difference between non sequiturs within explanations and non sequiturs that span them. You might reasonably expect that forty minutes of commentary would take a lot of mystery out of an album that might not have forty minutes of text in it, but in most cases I find that after adding the commentary to the lyrics and the map I'm even more tangled than I was before. If you can make sense of her explanation of "I can't see New York", in particular, you have a much later model of decoder ring than mine. But this confused, intrigued, incredulous, grateful sensation is very much part of how I listen to Tori's songs, in the first place, and the additional layers of partial scrutability just make me enjoy them more.
Along with a daily exercise regimen, which I took up because of my injured knee but which so far appears to be helping everything but that, I've also been slowly altering my diet. Mainly this consists of replacing the most egregiously metabolism-hostile meals in my general-purpose repertoire (cheese omelets, bad pizza, gloppy fettuccine Alfredo) with additional sushi, and leaving most of the medium-damage stuff the same. But less ice cream and fewer potato chips, too; more rice, more mangos and broccoli rabe (not together, yuck). I'd always assumed that I would find this process odious, if I ever essayed it; what isn't better with cheese? As it turns out, it's making cooking more interesting, spurring me to put more thought into food, which leads rather straightforwardly to enjoying it more, not less. And even the vaguest attention to the components of your diet will quickly explain to you how America has become so physically and aesthetically obese: we produce mountains of swill that should never be manufactured, let alone consumed. I'm not sure we won't eventually conclude that Pepsi and McDonald's are every bit as cynical and destructive as Philip Morris. My new rule, applicable to both food packages and restaurant windows: anything that displays a picture of the food, rather than the food, is probably not to be trusted.
I was in California longer, this last trip, and so had a few evenings free to go see something more interesting than Pleasanton, which means pretty much anything else. The night I went into Berkeley, I discovered two disturbing things. One is that I don't actually like Berkeley that much. I'd only been there once before, briefly a decade ago, and I'd been operating ever since as if it were culturally interchangeable with Austin, Boulder and Cambridge (and as if those were interchangeable with each other, which isn't true either). In fact, it's much, much grubbier. I would not have enjoyed the Sixties, I have a feeling, and walking around Berkeley I couldn't tell if anybody was exactly sure why they were trying to recreate it, either. I'd like to think that the uncanny correspondence between people and stereotypes was because the people engendered the stereotypes, but that explanation would have made more sense if they were older. Pretty much nobody who's been living like it's the Sixties since the Sixties is still in street-worthy condition at this point, and the twenty-year-olds just seem to be play-acting. To get from Amoeba to Rasputin I had to pass three separate groups of kids who appeared to have rush-ordered the Instant Neo-Hippie Sidewalk-Squatting Kit from Amazon with their parents' associate credits. In addition to one (1) mangy dog, one (1) laughably small Alternative Pet (lemurs extra), a roll-up chess-board and a set of clip-on nose-rings, you also get an assortment of torn military quilts and scraps of corrugated cardboard, a sheaf of precomposed poetry-slam verse, a carton of cigarettes from a tobacco company that epitomizes everything you claim to despise, a paperback copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with the cover missing, and of course a Starbucks card and cell phone apiece. As I passed the last group, a girl in Old Navy pants was declaiming a poem (computer-printed, I noted, not written there in the milieu) in which I'm pretty sure "second skin" was a coy reference to condoms. Her compatriots were looking on with same rapt expression I have when my family plays the old Genus edition of Trivial Pursuit and I actually get a question I've never heard before.
The other thing I discovered in Berkeley is that unless I'm actually on a different continent, record stores are no longer inherently entertaining to me. I carry a want-list, but it's all new stuff. Anything old and findable I want, I've found by now. Anything I can't find in the stores within a week or two of its nominal release, I mail-order. I don't remember the last time I went to a used-record store on purpose. A record store is no longer an ocean of tantalizing possibilities, to me, it's a delivery mechanism. There are basically no surprises I don't already know about from discography research, and so there is next to nothing I can really learn from browsing. And although Newbury Comics used to make you check your bag, they gave it up long ago, and I've come to misassociate this with my growing older, so that when the denizens of Amoeba and Rasputin made me hand mine over I felt obscurely insulted. "What are you imagining I would steal?", I wanted to ask. "There's nothing here I want."
And although Epic execs must be congratulating each other that they've managed to get a whole Tori Amos album without any embarrassing songs about vaginas, I'm not convinced that they'll be any better off, commercially, than Atlantic was with from the choirgirl hotel. There's no avoiding the fact that this is an eighteen-track, seventy-four minute album with relatively constrained arrangement and energy vocabularies. Even if you agree with my assessment that there are six or seven potential singles (and I don't mean hit singles), that leaves a dozen songs that are never going to make sense in anything but album context, and nobody knows how to chart albums any more. Anybody who isn't already a fan is going to be a hard sell. When Aimee Mann made an album with this consistently muted a tone, it bored me silly, and I'm not going to try to explain the palpable difference between masterpiece and dud by disassembly. Tori isn't part of any opportunistic trends, and although Little Earthquakes and from the choirgirl hotel were both distinctly of their eras, I think, Scarlet's Walk spans as much time as it does space, and still has a whole lot more philosophy in common with Blue and The Kick Inside than Jagged Little Pill, Tuesday Night Music Club or Come Away With Me. To anybody other than Epic's accountants, though, it doesn't matter. There are already more than enough Tori fans to sell out all the theaters and hockey rinks you can line up, including plenty who are young enough to have been in a target demographic for shallower stuff. Even if it's never marketed to anybody but the faithful, this record will spread inexorably. Tori fans proselytize by proximity, as a reflex.
It's ending, again, just before it begins. Look, there's no point in me pretending I don't think this is the best album ever. I already said that from the choirgirl hotel was the best album of the Nineties, and that listening to Tori play live is the most transcendent musical thing I've ever experienced, but this album is greater than either of those. This is the first Tori Amos album that is actually better than hearing her play the songs live. It's the complete control that Little Earthquakes didn't have, it's a better rock album than Rumours, it's more brilliant in its discipline than Hounds of Love or The Speckless Sky. It's better than even music maybe has the right to be, more precious than every assembled loss it arises from. It's bigger than me or you, and I tell you quite literally that I don't understand how a person subject to the same mortal rules could have made it. I've stayed up all night with it, tonight, with a computer in front of me and my hands on the keys, and have only really tried to type around it. The short version of this reaction, and the truest one, would simply have been silence; these thousands of evasive words and irrelevant digressions are merely a version of speechlessness. There is nothing I claim I can add to this album, no obscure points I think I should help to clarify, no clear truths I would hope to obfuscate. It doesn't get any better than this, I don't think it can't be made any better than it is by any action of mine, and trying to convince you of any of that through argument is too heartbreaking a prospect to contemplate. This is my apotheosis, and if you won't let it be yours, I hope you have some other one in mind. "Sometimes I hear my voice", Tori said, amazed, in "Silent All These Years". I hear my voice almost all the time. Too much. It's Thursday morning, and I'm going to shut up now.