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Tori Amos, ‘Scarlet’s Walk’ (Epic)

Let’s go, USA! Shortly after September 11, Tori Amos embarked on a cross-country tour. She came back with material for Scarlet’s Walk, an impressionistic travelogue that turns the American landscape into an extension of Amos’ own freaky head space. On her 2001 covers album, Strange Little Girls, Amos Photoshopped herself into Eminem’s nightmares and Neil Young’s dreams; here, she projects herself into places, not faces, blurring her persona into the scenery to highlight deeper truths about both.

Amos may still be best known for confessing deep secrets while bumping and grinding her Bösendorfer. But her real ax is empathy, and on Scarlet’s Walk, she internalizes everything from porn culture to the legacy of westward expansion. As usual, her melodies stubbornly refuse to turn into hooks, preferring to twirl into new territory. But her approach suits the material, which flows like the colors on a weather map, from Los Angeles to Nevada, from New York to Virginia, gathering thunder along the way. On “A Sorta Fairytale,” the album’s pensive first single, Amos cruises up Route 101, wondering why good love inevitably lets the bad times roll. On “Amber Waves,” Amos puts the SoCal skin trade on blast, while undercutting the song’s go-along-to-get-along tempo with melancholy piano chords.

The record’s climactic tour de force is “Scarlet’s Walk,” a séance-style spin through the Gothic South, its title evoking both the deaths of American Indians on the Trail of Tears and Gone With the Wind‘s homesick heroine. All organs, horns, and echoing drums, the song wraps Amos in layers of down-home creepiness. A man with a badge asks her: “What do you plan to do with all your stories?” She tells him she plans to bury them with all the other legends, wisdom, and “medicines” squandered throughout America’s history, then stretches the wordterra–signifying both Scarlett O’Hara’s ruined estate and all that blood-soaked, hallowed earth–into a little earthquake. This is heady stuff. But even when the imagery gets dense, Amos’ generous spirit lets you in. Your land is her land. Of thee she sings. Buckle up.