Not so much a collection of songs as a sonic novel, Scarlet's Walk is the new album from Tori Amos. Both highly personal and deeply political, it's an epic and thought-proving journey though America. A road trip in the classic Kerouac tradition, narrated by a character called Scarlet who is Amos herself and yet who is also Everywoman.
"Scarlet is walking in my shoes," says Tori. "You could say she's based on me. Or perhaps I am based on her."
As on all good road trips, along the way Scarlet discovers much about the world around her and even more about herself. About the past and where we've been and where we might be headed.
Populated by a cast of sometimes desperate but always fascinating characters and rich in symbolism and allegory, it's both a voyage of self-discovery and an examination of the stark choices facing us in a world which often seems to have lost its moral compass.
Partly inspired by the stories told by Tori's mother of her Cherokee family's history and partly by the crisis of identity in contemporary America, it is the most challenging, ambitious and vivid creation from Tori Amos's fertile imagination to date.
Scarlet's Walk begins on the West Coast, where she visits "Amber Waves," a phrase found in "America the Beautiful" and also the name of a porn star in the movie Boogie Nights. Amber's in trouble. "She had arrived in the city of angels with a dream of being someone. But ‘from ballet class to lap dance and straight to video,' her soul has been slowly eroded. She's still a young woman, perhaps in her late 20s. But the porn baron who made her a star has moved on to the next ingenue. The public has eatern her and spat her out and she has nobody who cares." So Scarlet and Amber undertake a journey, which eventually leads Scarlet to Alaska to see the Northern Lights. "There she's given the message to tell Amber they're not drowning, but waving."
A Sorta Fairytale finds Scarlet back in LA with a man she has convinced herself is her life's soul mate. "They take the big trip in the classic car up the Pacific Coast highway and across the desert. But as they go on, the masks drop away and they discover the fantasy they have of each other isn't who they really are." They end up back where they started and Scarlet leaves. "They did care. But somehow they lost each other. Which is why it's only 'A Sorta Fairytale...'"
Scarlet moves on to take other lovers. In "Wednesday" she's in a relationship with a man who harbours secrets. "The trust is gone and she doesn't know whether she is imaging that he's up to something or whether he really is. She's becoming something she never wanted to become - possessive and suspicious." But on another level, Scarlet's love-affair is with America. "Is the land of the free really so free? People have put their trust in the ideal of America. But whether it's the broken treaties with the native American people or the recent stock market crash, greed has taken over."
On "Strange," Scarlet's journey takes her to the sites of some of the last stands of the native American people, including Little Big Horn. From there she journeys on through the Bad Lands. "Scarlet has taken on the beliefs of her lovers and on another level those of her country. But she's begun to question them. We are taught that America stands for democracy. But that's not what she's seeing."
Next she meets up with the manic depressive "Carbon." They travel through the Black Hills of Dakota and to Wounded Knee, scene of one of the darkest episodes in Native American history. "All Carbon wants is to disintegrate into nothingness. So it's an extremely destructive story. Just as people risked their lives to keep their sacred land, a meltdown is about to happen in her life and a waltz into insanity is on the horizon. She's on this downhill race in her mind and Scarlet has to get to her before she kills herself." They end up in a ski resort - Bear Claw, Free Fall and Gunner's View in the song are all ski runs. But for Carbon the normal parameters and boundaries have ceased to apply and given way to self-mutilation and an urge to plunge over the cliff. Scarlet walks into this madness, but the outcome is left unresolved.
At this point a character called Crazy comes into Scarlet's life. "He makes a lot of sense and seems to take the pain away for a while so she follows him. He's seductive and dangerous and its delicious. But you know that it's not forever because you can't hold on to him." Together they travel through cowboy country and back to the desert, before he abandons her in Tucson.
There Scarlet picks up the voice of the Native American ancestors on "Wampum Prayer" after visiting the site of a massacre of the Apache people. "She has a dream and follows the voice and prayer of an old woman who survived and whose song is woven into the land." There's an obvious parallel with the songlines of Aboriginal folklore in Australia as Scarlet is propelled by the dream until she reaches Cherokee country and the ancestry of her own people.
In a further dream, she hears the cry of her niece, who is living in Las Vegas, 18 and in trouble. "The problem is that if Scarlet has to go to help her, she's going to need to confront her own past. The Prince of Black Jacks, who runs the town, is an old flame. If she goes, she's going to need his help. But she knows there's going to be a price to pay - hence her cry, 'Don't make me come to Vegas.'"
Her prayer is answered and instead Sweet Sangria finds her in Austin, Texas. There she meets a Latino revolutionary, fighting American intervention in Central and Southern America. But the more Scarlet is drawn into the fight, the more she begins to see that she can't go along with hurting innocent people - on either side. "For him the end justified the means. But although she believes in the cause, she can't load the gun.. It's about what you believe in and how far you're prepared to go."
She leaves him on the border at Laredo and "Your Cloud" finds her travelling alone up the Mississippi to Memphis. From there she travels on to a place where thousands of Cherokees died. "She's thinking about the idea of segregation and people separating themselves from the land. Everybody has a body map, and she's trying to find hers." She also visits the battlefields of the Civil War, before she arrives in Philadelphia where she sees the Liberty Bell - and observes that it is cracked.
"Pancake" finds Scarlet heading into Delaware and towards the north-eastern seats of learning and power. There she meets a Messiah figure, but swiftly becomes disillusioned. If her Latino revolutionary was all action, this Messiah is all talk. "He doesn't uphold the values which he preaches. He's deaf to the real needs of the people and is becoming drunk on the kind of power which he once denounced."
From Boston, the story switches to New York, where Scarlet witnesses a plane crash in mid-air. Tori was in the city on September 11 and "I Can't See New York" is a story with obvious echoes of that fateful day. "When they watched it on TV, people had to remind themselves that it wasn't a movie. Being there and being able to smell it, you knew that it was reality."
Trying to escape from New York, Scarlet picks up a ride. "Scarlet has a lot of questions and no answers at a time when the world is in deep trouble. Everything is twisted. But 'Mrs. Jesus' represents life and she takes a ride with her out of the city to try to make some sense of what has happened."
They part in Chicago, where Scarlet looks up old friends. There she learns of the death of a gay friend and resolves to visit his house in Baton Rouge, before travelling on to New Orleans. "'Taxi Ride' is about how people react to death and the betrayal that can happen even after death."
New Orleans is warm and balmy with the smell of honeysuckle in the air. But Scarlet is grappling with covetousness in "Another Girl's Paradise." Her travels take her through Florida and to Hawaii, before she returns to Miami. "All the time she's having a conversation with desire. And she realises that very few of us can genuinely wish each other good in a selfless way."
On "Scarlet's Walk" she traces the footsteps of the early European settlers along the east coast and passes through the capital of the Cherokee nation. "In the song, America is a young girl looking over the water at another young girl, who may be called France or Spain or England. She's curious so she invites them over. Pretty soon, they've moved in and taken everything - the husband, the house and the job - and the new sheriff is in charge." The walk also picks up the story of the grandfather of Amos's grandmother, a full-bloodied Cherokee.
In "Virginia," Scarlet makes her way up to Washington and visits Jamestown, one of the earliest settlements. She wonders how a land built on the notion of freedom for the settlers could deny freedom to the native American people. "In her mind she sees the white brother coming and the young native American girl following. The mythology of another land has been imposed on America."
Last year, Tori gave birth to a daughter, and at the end of her journey, so does Scarlet. On the birth of her child in "Gold Dust," she is finally able to see the map she has lost. "From being the woman of adventure, she now has another life dependent upon her. And she sees that which is permanent and that which is transitory in a new light. When the Twin Towers went down we realised that what is permanent rests in your heart."
Such a brief synopsis only scratches the surface of the themes explored in Scarlet's Walk. Multi-layered, cinematic and challenging, it is an album that provokes and stimulates and reveals new depths of meaning with every listen. Tori Amos walks it like she talks it.
walk back to the hotel