Tori Amos has rarely been predictable, but her last album, 2005’s “The Beekeeper,” was a somber and solemn collection of adult contemporary pleasantries that were nice enough, but notably lacking in edge and fire. It felt almost routine. Perhaps the change was attributable to her marriage and motherhood, and to the absence of the traumatic pain and struggles that inspired her best work, such as her duel '90s masterpieces “Boys for Pele” and “From the Choirgirl Hotel.”
Perhaps it was age encroaching – Amos is inching toward her mid-40s, and maybe she felt that she could coast the remainder of her career recording songs like “Sleeps with Butterflies” and “Sweet the Sting” which, although strongly melodic and alluring in their way, lacked a certain spark. Fans and critics wondered – had she settled down? Where was the Tori Amos who so enthralled audiences with her edginess, originality, and passion? Was Tori Amos only able to conceive her most potent art through anguish, or could she still deliver the goods now that her life was in a happier place?
Those worries have been put to rest. Hitting stores May 1, her tenth album “American Doll Posse,” leaves no doubt that Amos has no intention of quietly fading into the pack alongside such gutless trivialities as Jewel or Sheryl Crow. “American Doll Posse” is a brazen return to top form, a ballsy and beautiful album that genre-hops from dirty rock, traditional Amos ballads, and effervescent pop -- sometimes all within the same song.
“American Doll Posse” is exciting and entertaining, but not all is rosy. It would hardly be a Tori Amos album without a concept, and in this case the concept is particularly odious. On “American Doll Posse,” Amos takes on 5 distinct personalities, and each song is sung from the point of view of one of the “dolls:" Santa, Clyde, Pip, Isabel and, yes, Tori. But that’s not all -- each persona represents a figure from Greek mythology as well -- and that’s where it gets even more complicated. Amos can speak in incomprehensible circles when it comes to explaining her work, and in this case the concept is unwieldy and obscures the music. One wonders if the songs are from the heart, or are creations intended to fit one of the various characteristics of the “dolls” she’s created. Because of the concept, and the stylistic leaps, the album lacks coherence and almost feels like a compilation. That being said, some of the best albums in rock history lack coherence (think The Beatles “White Album”, or Prince’s patchwork of genres “Sign o’ The Times.”) “American Doll Posse” may be a bit of a mess, but it’s a glorious mess in its way. It includes some her strongest compositions in years. Strip away the somewhat baffling and intrusive concept and uncover the album beneath, and “American Doll Posse” is an astonishingly diverse and rewarding collection of top-flight songs.
First single “Big Wheel” is a splash of cold water on a stale music scene. “American Doll Posse” finds Amos mining various '70s influences throughout, and on “Big Wheel” she borrows from “Tumbleweed Connection”-era Elton John. Mixing humor and a certain wickedness, the song bounces gleefully along to its hilarious bridge (“I am an M-I-L-F, don’t you forget…”) It’s her most eye-opening single since “Spark,” and the video is hysterical.
“Bouncing on Clouds”, the first single outside of the U.S., is her best pure pop song in years. Buoyant and melodic, it practically begs for a dance remix.
“American Doll Posse” is loaded with strongly commercial material. “Secret Spell” is a breezy mid-tempo number that has echoes of “Rumours”-era Fleetwood Mac, and should certainly garner strong consideration as a single. While Amos’ trademark piano certainly never takes a back seat on the album, what’s most surprising about “American Doll Posse” is the hard-rocking electric guitar.
“Teenage Hustling” is just a blast of pure glam-rock raunchiness. Amos’ notoriously devoted legion of fans will no doubt squirm in glee as she growls out lines like “You’re a dirrrty girrrl!” in concert. In “You Can Bring Your Dog”, Amos channels Robert Plant in full classic-rock mode. “Body and Soul” has an '80s hair-band vibe that is reminiscent of her debut CD, “Y Kan’t Tori Read,” with a dash of PJ Harvey thrown in for good measure.
Perhaps the strongest track is “Almost Rosey,” a gorgeous ballad in the vein of “Jackie’s Strength” that is destined to become a Tori Amos classic. It has a classic stadium-rock feel that will no doubt translate beautifully on stage. The electronic-tinged “Digital Ghost” is lovely and haunting. “Code Red” is another high point, with one of the most convincing and intriguing vocal performances on the album. “Girl Disappearing,” with its beautiful swirl of piano and strings, is gentle and poignant.
As is probably inevitable on an album this long and sprawling (23 tracks totaling nearly 80 minutes), there are misfires. “Roosterspur Bridge” is pleasant but forgettable, and covers territory already mined extensively on “The Beekeeper.” The big anti-war political statement, “Dark Side of the Sun,” feels contrived and hokey. “Mr. Bad Man” is a bit cloying, like a joke that wears thin too quickly. There are also six short pieces that divide the album into sections -- including the memorably tiled "Fat Slut" -- that are mostly irrelevant and distracting. “Programmable Soda” -- no doubt intended to be cute, or perhaps ironic -- is particularly cringe-worthy.
Despite the flaws, “American Doll Posse” represents a triumphant return for one of the most accomplished and visionary artists of the last 20 years. Nobody quite sounds like Tori Amos -- her unique vision, voice and style has always been uncompromising, and on “American Doll Posse” she is clearly in complete control. It veers in and out of styles, is hard to understand and at times frustrating -- but it certainly grabs the listener’s attention and doesn’t let go. Getting lost in the concept behind the songs will probably hinder rather than help in the enjoyment of the album. The songs don’t feel personal in the way that Amos’ best work does -- at no time does it feel that Amos is baring her soul.
Perhaps those days are past, but one does not need to always be nakedly confessional to be able to produce strong work, as “American Doll Posse” proves. On this album, Amos is looking outward rather than inward. It may be hard to fathom where she is trying to go with the message on this album, but that frankly is beside the point. The ride feels so good that the final destination doesn’t seem all that important anymore.