With her tenth studio album Abnormally Attracted To Sin becoming her fourth in a row to clock in at over seventy-five minutes, it’s time to face facts: Tori Amos is, in the most literal sense, generous to a fault. What’s more, it’s a fault that gets more and more frustrating with each overstuffed biannual offering. Equally cursed and blessed with a gift that keeps on giving, Amos could justifiably lay claim to the title of the hardest working person in the industry, and there is much to be admired in her tenacity and acumen. But where is the line between the desire to provide and a staggering lack of editorial control? Somewhere, Amos has crossed it.
In keeping with the spiritual idea of ‘the gift’, Amos has always been convincing in her belief that core parts of her songs are gathered subconsciously out of the ether, and Abnormally Attracted To Sin continues that thread. When the songs first flooded in, she had no plans to make an album. How could she? She was already promoting a book (the impressionistic visual feast of Comic Book Tattoo), prepping a live DVD, and writing a stage musical based on a Victorian fairytale. But Amos hasn’t made it to ten albums by staring gift horses down the gullet and she dutifully tuned in.
It would be somewhat churlish to say that the signal got scrambled but Abnormally Attracted To Sin draws on several disparate elements – many of them familiar Tori-tropes – and consequently suffers from a see-what-sticks approach. As a result, we encounter some extreme shifts from the sublime to the ridiculous, while the sequencing all but decimates the dynamic segues and transitions between songs that are so characteristic of her earlier work. Anyone desperately hoping for a return to something even distantly approaching cohesion should probably switch off after the first four songs.
It all starts out so perfectly, you see. As album openers go, you couldn’t do much better than ‘Give’. An intense hit of sophisticated electronica, it’s like biting into a slab of Moroccan dark chocolate after the enjoyable yet ultimately shallow confections of American Doll Posse. A portentous drumbeat stalks through the heart of the song as Amos delivers perhaps her finest vocal performance in a decade, simmering with a potent rage in the verses and arcing high into her upper register on the chorus. Both piano and electric guitar are used sparingly, while a disorienting wash of synths buzzes across the speakers almost constantly.
Aside from the startlingly theatrical performance, part of the beauty of ‘Give’ lies in how open the lyrics are to interpretation. One take that sort of fits in with the album’s general theme – for once we’re not calling this a concept album – of re-evaluating the notions of “sin”, social acceptability and power is that Amos could be singing from the perspective of a prostitute; equally, there is something distinctly vampyric about its references to sunrise and bloodletting. You could even say it’s simply Amos defending her right to make overlong albums, but that’s just not as exciting.
From this deeply cool beginning, first single ‘Welcome To England’ seems almost Tori-by-numbers on the first few listens but the finer details of the production soon emerge. It’s nice to hear the piano competing with the layered synths and guitars and Amos sounds at ease. If it proves anything, it’s that she can still make catchy singles without resorting to butterflies or attention-grabbing acronyms. Post-immigration ambivalence is much more engaging, and the idea of “daily hell” being transcended through creative imagination is something we can all believe in.
The dense, soulful rock of ‘Strong Black Vine’ arrives loudly on a dramatic bed of drums and strings, with some welcome Hammond organ later mixed in with the synths and electric guitar. Lyrically it seems to be a convoluted stab at drawing together the heavy themes of war, religion and America’s insatiable desire for oil; but this is no ‘Dark Side Of The Sun’. Amos muddies her imagery to her advantage, seemingly urging her subject to expand their mind, perhaps by using some of her old friend ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic vine that grows in South America). By whatever means, the oppressor must be made to submit.
The much gentler ‘Flavor’ seems to find Amos meditating on the power of the media, though not in an obvious way. The flavo(u)r in question is either fear or love and how we are being influenced to think more with kneejerk reactions than considered compassion, especially with regard to misunderstood belief systems. Or at least that’s one take. Musically it has a contemplative, spacey feel and would have fit right in on To Venus & Back. Beaming back to Earth, however, Amos was deflected off course and ended up somehow on a bus with a gambler, a cleaner and a puppeteer. Yeah, don’t ask. Without putting too fine a point on it, ‘Not Dying Today’ is pretty much heinous on every level, and from then on the album becomes an assault course of awkwardly juxtaposed moments.
Predictably, some of the songs have a made-for-Broadway feel and Amos walks a fine line with these. ‘Maybe California’ may not seem like an obvious stage production at first, but when the brushed drums sweep in and the chorus starts to swirl it’s hard not to picture it as one of those pivotal, pre-intermission ballads. Embellished with beautiful strings, it has some genuinely touching moments but lyrically is perhaps too direct. By way of contrast ‘Abnormally Attracted To Sin’ defies any expectations imposed by lifting its title from ‘Guys & Dolls’ dialogue, taking the reference and spinning something totally fresh and unexpected out of it as a thick miasma of synths and Hammond takes us right to the threshold of the church Amos warns us not to enter if saddled with the titular affliction.
The tragedy of Abnormally Attracted To Sin as a whole is that there are really two distinct bodies of work here, and they just don’t belong on the same disc. One is consistently inventive, riveting and (most importantly) believable; the other is a campy romp of character studies that, while typically big-hearted, could have used some fine-tuning. ’500 Miles’ is prime skipping material, while the initially quite promising ‘Police Me’ is destroyed by some horrendous lyrics, sadly a defining feature of the album’s weaker tracks. The brilliant nuances, quirks, allusions and wit we have come to expect from Amos are occasionally lacking. Instead we get clumsy references to “slutty goths” and sat-navs. We’d rather have an ear full of cider. In comparison, ‘That Guy’ and ‘Mary Jane’ are at the thick end of the theatrical wedge and find Amos in a wily, kittenish mood that will probably translate better live.
Of the songs belonging to that other, killer album, ‘Starling’ and ‘Ophelia’ are solid, if a little familiar, while the charming Southern twists and odd pronunciations of ‘Fast Horse’ stack up surprisingly well. ‘Curtain Call’ is Amos at her mysterious best with a good use of tension in the music. The lyrics are intelligent and full of interesting sex and drugs metaphors that feel autobiographical but also expansive in that you can project your own experiences into them. ‘Lady In Blue’ is a wonderfully hypnotic epic that builds deliciously slowly into a lengthy and superb instrumental climax. After ‘Give’ it’s easily the album’s most surprising inclusion, full of smouldering passion and curlicues of smoky, spellbinding intrigue, and easily matches the best of her incredible career. The gorgeously autumnal and uncluttered bonus track ‘Oscar’s Theme’ harks right back to her solo piano days, and as the background hiss fades away you’re left with palate cleansed but wanting more of this Tori, rock’s peerless pianist who can get beneath your skin in just one breath. That is her gift.
We’ll probably never know why Amos has grown to insist upon her recent work trying to be everything to everyone, but Abnormally Attracted To Sin is easily her most uneven listening experience. That’s a crying disservice to the fantastic album contained within its sprawl and it would be a genuine pity for people to hear the likes of ’500 Miles’ and write it off. Amos’s idea of reclaiming the concept of sin from the church doesn’t really provide a coherent thread so it will be interesting to see what the bonus DVD of accompanying “visualettes” contributes, if anything.
It has been six years since she last put out an album that felt like a carefully constructed and concise artistic statement. And as long as Tori Amos remains abnormally afraid of censoring herself, it seems the whole will continue to betray the sum of its parts.
[Island; May 18, 2009]
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