On Scarlet's Walk, her seventh album, Tori Amos does a misty mountain hop across a mythical America, blurring the line between the sacred and the erotic, Cherokee prayers and porn-star lap dances, New Age and Led Zeppelin. It's the latest transmission from Planet Tori, full of wordplay that is by turns inscrutable, outrageously purple or righteously outraged. Amos' albums have always been obsessed with the quest for self-realization; Scarlet's Walk takes a thinly veiled alter ego on a journey across America in search of the real her.
Amos' previous album, the all-covers Strange Little Girls, found her role-playing with a delicious lack of inhibition; Scarlet's Walk is told from a single female protagonist's perspective. But that doesn't stop Amos from having fun. Even when she's fed up, as in "Taxi Ride," the steam rises from a line such as "Even a glamorous bitch can be in need." And when her voice frays, breaking into a Zeppelin-worthy moan on "Pancake," it gives her disillusionment a sensual dimension.
Though Jon Evans' voluptuous bass and Matt Chamberlain's empathetic percussion provide ballast, Scarlet is all about Amos and her many musical personae, both as a singer and a keyboard player. She can be unbearably precious ("I put our snowflake under a microscope"), and tunes such as "Crazy" edge perilously toward Enya. But she keeps even her most fulsome phrases conversational, her syntax underlined by rippling, chord-free keyboard lines. The harmonies — with Amos morphing into a backing choir or whispering responses into her inner ear — play a similar role. She may be wandering the world by herself, but she's never alone: There's an army of voices inside Tori Amos, and the girl knows how to use them.