ori Amos’s epic mistakes of the past five years have either been magnified in the teary eyes of her devoted, largely female fans, or pushed happily out of sight by largely male naysayers who can sum up her entire career with a smirking rendition of the line, “Never was a cornflake girl.” She’s always been conceptual, but in her current state, the 44-year-old keymaster has made a downright suffocating set of 23 songs in which she role-plays five fictional women. Their expressions are, for the most part, futuristic cover-facsimiles of Amos’s old, great songs—not the songs themselves but remnants of their peerless power. The eerie sheen of 2003’s Tales of a Librarian, which contained remastered old songs and tepid additions from the vault, predicted her demise, its careful tip-toeing around the mainstream a premonition of her next three albums, all striving for some kind of easy listen of recognition, all flops.
It’s hard not to want to talk about Bat for Lashes for this entire review: its singer Natasha Khan is just one DIY virtuoso who would be nowhere without the Amos legacy. Such youthful reinterpretations of the elder’s oeuvre as Khan’s Fur and Gold remind us that while Amos has “still got it,” “it” just happens to be on permanent loan to a select few members of Generation Y. This may be the saving grace of the twenty-odd fillers smothering Posse’s glimmers of promise. But it’s easy to confuse the lustrous piano-drum power of “Dark Side of the Sun” with pure nostalgia for the title track of 1993’s Little Earthquakes. Yet it’s hard to criticize artists because we, as fans, are nostalgic. Few musicians consciously hark back to his or her old music; they’re just looking to a brighter future. So Amos is channeling current sentiments—political (“Yo George”), sexual, and philosophical. Nothing’s changed there. But for that to result in breathtaking or memorable music is another challenge entirely.
As with previous releases, Posse suffers from a bottomed-out sound, its overly quiet production obscuring any atmospheric potency. Her best work (all of 1998’s From the Choirgirl Hotel) is brimming with it. Though the latter parts of this obese album are superior, one of its tracks, “Smokey Joe,” still manages to sap melodic meaning with timid effects swirls and half-wrought rhythms.
Adding a set of young female characters to this drab mix only accentuates that a concept is needed to bolster the actual music. Amos actually credits her “dolls” in the liner notes, but referring to those notes to find out who’s singing is a drag—it may suit the listener better to misplace any knowledge of this cheap trick. Talking about “girls” was reasonable ten years ago, but Amos’s strain to identify with the twenties decade of life or obsess over her own gets old after nine albums. It would be refreshing to hear honest talk about one’s forties instead of glamorous, plastic doll-face parodies of it. Amos’s ornately poetic and alienating mind is still her greatest tool, but sometimes the strongest instances of her talent are silly lines like “Bouncing off of clouds” or “Sometimes I watch the wander in your eyes,” not the complex metaphors of songs with tenuous and occasionally odious melodies. The use of electric guitar in the exaggeratedly dark blues song “You Can Bring Your Dog” almost sounds like a practical joke.
“Girl Disappearing” is perhaps this album’s only complete track, completely Amos, not clambering for some great, wide-reaching accessibility or languishing in a late-career slump. Its snaking piano line and hop-skip vocal melody may instantly recall the delicate landscapes of To Venus and Back, particularly “Josephine,” but a quartet of staccato strings drives the song into novelty. Later, the song pretties up its earlier sections, making it a candidate for the classic, less saleable music Amos should be making as alternative pop’s resident fun aunt.