After playing and enjoying my iPod quite a bit and contemplating the demise of vinyl and the compact disc, I’m wondering if another casualty of the MP3 revolution may not be the album itself. My iPod gives me the power not only to skip songs, but to hop back and forth between albums with impunity.
Many would say this is no great loss, since the power to control your own music trumps all, and I agree with that, but is the revolution encouraging the sale of “albums” as mere agglomerations of songs, rather than a cohesive creative work in its own right?
There are still artists out there who compose albums rather than songs, Kate Bush and Tori Amos among them. And I came to appreciate this after listening to the two artists’ most recent offerings — Aerial for Kate Bush and American Doll Posse for Tori Amos — because although both artists bring forward some of their best work, here, one succeeds in the creation of her album, and the other does not.
Tori Amos’ American Doll Posse is the most recent work, released this past April, and it is most definitely being hyped as an album. Only a handful of singles have been released from its mammoth track list of 23 songs, and a lot of promotional work has gone into the creative roots of the work.
The “American Doll Posse” of the title consists of five different female characters that Amos “developed around the album’s 20 tracks,” according to US Weekly. The characters represent different aspects of Tori’s own personality:
“What I’m trying to tell other women is they have their own version of the compartmentalised feminine which may have been repressed in each one of them. For many years I have been an image; that isn’t necessarily who I am completely. I have made certain choices and that doesn’t mean that those choices are the whole story. I think these women are showing me that I have not explored honest extensions of the self who are now as real as the redhead.”
Each show begins with a short set from Clyde, Santa, Pip or Isabel, then continues with Tori for the rest of the night.
The work that Amos puts into maintaining this conceit is remarkable. At concerts, she does costume changes between each character as she performs a few sets, effectively opening for herself. On her website, each individual character has her own blog. Now that’s dedication.
American Doll Posse still features all of the good things I’ve come to expect from Amos, her complex music, her ecclectic mix of styles, and brilliant song writing full of the sort of bold leaps that I wish I could emulate on my better days. Indeed, her lyrics here are among the best I’ve seen. Heres a set that jumped out at me in the song Big Wheel
I’ve been on my knees
But you’re so hard
hard to please
Did you take me take me in
So you are a superstar
get off the cross we need the wood
Somehow you will rise
But without a tool
I know honey you’re a pro
But BABY I don’t need your cash
Mama got it all in hand now
All the songs have a huge amount of energy to them, and there are plenty of favourites that I’ll skip back to, but the album as a whole never comes together. Even when armed with the information from Wikipedia, I’m hard-pressed to tell which song is sung by which singer. And lacking a narrative that I can access, the story never has a chance to materialize. Despite the album’s title, a posse has little chance of forming if the individual characters don’t have strong individual voices. A few reviewers on Amazon have called American Girl Posse one of Tori Amos’ stronger collection of songs, but one of her weaker albums, and I’m inclined to agree.
In comparison, one should check out Kate Bush’s masterful contribution in the form of Aerial, released in 2005.
Musical careers have risen and fallen in the time that has passed between Kate Bush last two albums. It’s fair to say that Bush burst back onto the scene with Aerial, her first release since The Red Shoes back in 1993. The entertainment media tended to portray her as an eccentric recluse, but really she was simply raising her family and desiring to give her children something approaching a normal upbringing out of the eye of the press, but she still touched upon the excesses of fame with Aerial’s one chart-topping single, King of the Mountain, which references Elvis and Citizen Cane.
King of the Mountain aside, Aerial is more coherently an album. Taking a cue from Hounds of Love, she splits the album in two, with the first seven songs appearing on one disc subtitled A Sea of Honey while the remaining nine reside on disc two, subtitled A Sky of Honey and each forming part of a greater narrative. Though the first seven songs in A Sea of Honey tend to stand alone, they mesh well with the back nine in terms of musical character, instrumentation, and style of lyrics.
With the back nine, Bush returns to specific themes again and again, from the laughter of birdsong, to the work of an architect, building aerials (be sure to take another look at Aerial’s cover, which is especially clever. At first glance appearing to be mountains reflected in water, the mountains are really sound waveforms of birdsong).
By the time the album runs to the fifteen minute experience of the dual song of Nocturne and Aerial, the sense is having listened to a united composition lasting over an hour. Everything fits together, producing a satisfying whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
So I would have to say that, with Aerial, Kate Bush has more successfully created an album than Tori Amos does with American Girl Posse, despite Amos’ obvious talent being on display, and the efforts she has made to market the album as one creative unit through costume changes and blogs. Ironically, in the age of iTunes, Amos might come out the beneficiary, since her fans have more singles to purchase. A fan poll taken on Tori’s website lists a half dozen songs that are substantially more popular than the rest. That’s some consolation as Amos faces mixed reviews, and Bush walks away with a number of awards.
Well, one thing above all sells these two albums as albums, at least on iTunes. You can purchase either one for just $9.99, far less than buying each of the songs (16 on Aerial and 23 on American Doll Posse) at $0.99 would set you back. At that price, I have no qualms in recommending either album for a purchase for your iPod.