Tori Amos’s fourth consecutive album that’s threatened to be swallowed whole by its macro-level structure, American Doll Posse comes with so much prerequisite work that its most immediate effect will be to alienate however many casual fans she has remaining while reaffirming the devotion of her die-hard constituency. That its gimmick—the album is “written” and “performed” by five distinct personae, each of whom comes with her own classical goddess archetype as inspiration and each of whom has her own blog to make for a more fully-developed point of view—is so easy to dismiss as Amos’s already mile-wide self-indulgent streak multiplied by five is unfortunate, then, because American Doll Posse is, if not quite a full-on return to form, Amos’s richest album since 1998’s From The Choirgirl Hotel. Unlike its three predecessors (the unfocused post-feminist covers album Strange Little Girls, the monotonous Scarlet’s Walk, and the terribly-written, bloated The Beekeeper), this is an album that is at least intermittently enhanced by its concept.
Moreover, the best songs on American Doll Posse have strong enough lyrics and melodies to stand on their own, without getting into whether Amos is singing as Tori, Pip, Isabel, Clyde, or Santa (who, incidentally, looks a lot like Helen Mirren in awards-show glam). For those who choose to put the time into the album, there’s some fertile territory to be found, particularly in how the perspectives of the most fully-realized dolls (Isabel, with her informed, sharply observed political outrage; the frank, aggressive sexuality of Pip; and Clyde’s ironic interest in stripping away artifice) reconcile with Amos’s own aesthetic. But, with 23 songs to pore over, eventually the women start to repeat themselves to diminished returns (Isabel, it seems, is anti-war) and to become increasingly indistinct. Which may be part of the point, but it’s one that Amos could’ve made far more concisely. Interestingly enough, the songs that would make for the most obvious cuts—and, truly, Amos needs an internal editor almost as badly as Ryan Adams does—are the ones credited to “Tori.” The lone exception there is “Big Wheel,” Amos’s finest single in ages, which surprises for its country-inflected production and which showcases the extent to which she’s rediscovered her pulse and her sly sense of humor.
For too long now, Amos has been exploiting her fans’ willingness to attach profound meaning to even her most cloying wordplays—starting with the first line of To Venus And Back (“Father, I’ve killed my monkey/I let it out to taste the sweet of spring”) and descending from there. But on “Big Wheel,” when she chants, “I am a M.I.L.F./Don’t you forget,” she’s letting her audience back in on the joke, and that accessibility makes her occasional lapse into idiosyncratic syntax or abrasive vocal tics a whole lot less insufferable. Even more helpful in that regard, though, are the memorable melodic hooks on standout tracks like “Bouncing Off Clouds” and the gorgeous “Roosterspur Bridge,” and the forceful, distorted guitars on “Teenage Hustling” and “You Can Bring Your Dog,” which recall the roughest edges of songs like “God” and “She’s Your Cocaine.” There are missteps—“Programmable Soda” is one of her most awkward, forced metaphors, while “Code Red” collapses at the line “Victory is an elusive whore”—but the songs on American Doll Posse that really work are reminders of how gifted a songwriter Amos is.
If still too uneven and entirely too overstuffed to rank among her most essential albums, American Doll Posse is certainly Amos’s most ambitious record, both for the breadth of its sound and for the scope of its driving concept. While that concept is unwieldy and problematic (those blogs demonstrate that Amos’s prose is every bit as cryptic as her worst lyrics), what’s encouraging about American Doll Posse is that, for the first time this decade, it sounds like Amos was as inspired in creating the music for an album as she was in creating the story behind it. The album works about as well as pop music as it does as a concept piece, and in both cases in works pretty well. Whatever becomes of Clyde, Pip, Isabel, and Santa from this point, it’s just comforting to know that Tori Amos is still in there.