But good news for those who were wondering, American Doll Posse, Ms. Amos’ ninth major work, is riveting in a way her music hasn’t been for some time. Make no mistake, Tori is still a mom in her early 40s. But the content – more importantly, the expression of that content – finds the songwriter crafting work with a purpose again, putting much of the fire that seemed to be dying out back into her sound.
American Doll Posse is, thankfully, neither the Tori of ten years ago nor the Tori of two; as boring as The Beekeeper may have been, a grown woman acting like a thirtysomething is worse. Instead, Tori has moved from singing about things she can’t deal with to singing about things with which the newer generations seem to need help. “Girl Disappearing,” which features a gorgeous string quartet arrangement by John Philip Shenale and one of Tori’s best vocal melodies to date, extends a loving hand to the young girls who think degrading themselves is the only path to empowerment. “Teenage Hustling” is an aggressive warrior of a track which goes after the music industry moguls who try to take advantage of the artists they’re meant to support. “Body and Soul” is a bass-heavy swinger that basks in the merging of the spiritual and the physical. And if anyone in your circle has found themselves lost to the World of Warcraft, “Digital Ghost” may end up being the most significant song you hear all year, not to mention one of the most beautiful.
“Dragon,” the closing number and one of the finest compositions of Tori Amos’ prolific career, asserts the necessity of uniting the masculine with the feminine to achieve wholeness, both in society and inside each individual. And indeed, unity seems to be the primary focus of this album, even down to the rather convoluted concept. There are five fictional characters, all Tori in costume, representing different feminine archetypes. This is meant to show that in order to be fully formed, one must embrace all sides of themselves. How do I know? Try playing only the tracks attributed to any one of the characters. It’s a rather flat experience.
Wonderfully, though, the eponymous “posse” serves as a visual representation of how sonically varied the album is. It jumps from plaintive ballads, to country stomp, Venetian folk, and melodic piano pop, while incorporating meletrons, clavichords, brass, ukuleles, and fields of electric guitar distortion. And while it has more backup than any previous outing, the piano is still played in a regal and accomplished manner, particularly on tracks “Father’s Son” and “Velvet Revolution.” This album shows that Amos hasn’t lost her ability to explore and experiment, delivering the finds from whatever destination her muse takes her. There are almost as many genres represented as there are tracks on the album.
But this brings us to the album’s major flaw: it’s long. It’s really long. There are 23 tracks, and over an hour of play time. While it’s not the most arduous listen, it doesn’t exactly breeze by either.
American Doll Posse feels like the result of Tori’s insular creative space. She not only writes every song, she produces them herself in her own home studio, her husband acting as sound engineer, and she employs the same group of musicians consistently. If there’s one thing that could’ve made this album a complete success, it would’ve been an outside producer, someone to editorialize. While different listeners are going to have their own choices for which tracks should’ve been left off (I vote for the over-sweet “Roosterspur Bridge,” largely forgettable “Secret Spell,” and the completely unnecessary “Posse Bonus”), there is undeniably a sense of some tracks’ being redundant.
Another shortcoming of this work is Amos’ voice. Much like the poetry of Sylvia Plath, which Ms. Amos has cited as a major influence, Tori’s voice has a sense of mannerism, even at its most raw. Nothing wrong with a more-analytical-than-primal personality type, of course; but, this makes the bawdier material, such as “Big Wheel” and “You Can Bring Your Dog” less convincing, though still fun. These same tracks are also weighed down by Tori’s bass-heavy mixing, which has become a staple since 2001’s Strange Little Girls and tends to make otherwise gritty songs feel too muddy from the excess of low end. While it’s not as obtrusive on American Doll Posse as on her last two efforts, it’s still a bit pesky, and the listener would be well served to utilize whatever equalizer function their music player may have.
But even with its flaws, American Doll Posse contains some of Tori Amos’ finest work, not only as a lyricist (“Programmable Soda”) and a composer (“Bouncing off Clouds”), but also as a singer (“Code Red”) and as a producer (“Smokey Joe,” which begs the already clichéd, and generally uneducated, comparisons to Kate Bush in the best possible way). The final ratio of good/great moments to mediocre/bad heavily favors the positive side, and the price of admission is fully warranted.
Credit must be given to the lady for making American Doll Posse both a work of passion and intellect, for showing that the political is personal. She has not sacrificed her well-earned stability to prove she’s still an exciting composer. As it should, the work speaks for itself.