Today’s spotlight explores albums in Tori Amos’ repertoire that are arguably more divisive among listeners due to their unorthodox structures and diversity in production and sound. The essays that follow seek to unpack each of these records’ complexities with careful consideration of Amos’ and her collaborators’ intentions and both popular and critical reception of the works.
Abnormally Attracted to Sin (2009)
Hot on the (very high) heels of a world tour in support of American Doll Posse, the slick Ziggy Stardust-inspired glam-rock spectacle that saw Amos embodying a different character each night, Tori went back into the studio to release an EP of tracks to bid each member of the Posse adieu (intended as a bonus on a live DVD that never materialized). But Amos’ deft, creative mind rarely sticks to its original course, and soon the 17 tracks of Abnormally Attracted to Sin came to fruition. Touted by Tori as a record concerned with everything from “the idea of erotic spirituality” to “people struggling with power [and finding themselves] attracted to those with power” to “women finding their inner strength,” and accompanied by a DVD of “visualettes” purposed to help tell the songs’ respective stories, one might find it difficult to unearth the album’s thematic center. But don’t let the chatter distract you: Sin is arguably the most autobiographical Amos has been in years, and at its crux, an album of survival in the face of harsh personal and professional predicaments.
The wonderfully dark opener “Give”, adorned by glittering synths and goth-lite industrial drums, finds a pained, but not decidedly not bitter, Amos musing on her spiritual and pragmatic need to create (“I must give/so that I can live”). The bleak lament “Curtain Call”, with its piano and drum lines melding together to create a sonic thunderstorm, sees Amos reflecting on her time in the music industry and when she’s both risen above and succumbed to its seedy dealings. “You’ve got you a fast horse, darling / but all you do is complain / it ain’t a Maserati,” she sneers on “Fast Horse”, another stab at the business she’s tirelessly fought to change the landscape of, while “Starling” confronts escalating feelings of resentment and jealousy in the midst of those battles. “Welcome to England”, with its urgent dueling keyboards, paints an intimate portrait of Amos contemplating leaving her “daily hell” and ultimately crossing an ocean for love.
Greater worldly concerns also permeate the record: “Flavor” puts a spacey perspective on the dangers of capricious God worship, while “Strong Black Vine”, a contemporary piece of protest rock by way of a James Bond theme, is a fiery reminder that when the dusts of war and earthly greed settle, Mother Nature will be the only one left standing. “What’s amazing is that, say, on a song like “Strong Black Vine” which has that strong Middle Eastern line that I’ve put down, and then I see her in concert and she’s playing almost exactly what I’ve done. And it’s almost infuriating!” joked John Philip Shenale. “I’ve finally figured out how she does it: she takes the most important aspect of each of the parts and she weaves it together as one part, which is one of her brilliant gifts. Let’s say, for example, there’s a synth line going over a Wurlitzer line she’s playing and there’s strings over that, what she’ll do is she’ll get general sense of what she’s hearing, but she’s not playing those exact parts, she’s weaving a new part. She may go back and forth between colors and all that, but it’s truly always a reinterpretation of the record, and she always approaches it like that as opposed to so many people who just think, “Oh God, we have to play that exact part exactly the same live or people won’t recognize the song.” Tori throws all that out the window. She thinks, “Here’s the major stuff, and now what am I going to do with it to make something new of it?” And that’s why so many people love to come to her shows, and they’ll see multiple shows on one tour to see what she’s going to do. I was able to see four shows on this last tour, and every night was different! I mean, I’m not saying she totally plays everything different, but the feelings and the tempos and the focuses, the selection of songs… she basically reads and touches and changes everything. And that’s what people are excited about. You’re seeing an organic process happen in front of you. And I think she looks forward to that. It’s really part of her creative process.”
For better or worse, Amos has become expert at overstuffing her albums and in the case of Sin, the tracks that could have been b-sides are fairly easy to spot: the “ride or die” sentiment of “Not Dying Today” is fitting, but musically would be more at home on a late ‘90s Springsteen album, and it’s a bit head-scratching to think a musician who once took hallucinogenic trips with shamans could pen “Mary Jane,” a cabaret-tinged tale of a mother clueless to her teenage son’s penchant for sparking doobies. In terms of its diverse production, Abnormally Attracted to Sin is most akin to from the choirgirl hotel, and enigmatic album closer “Lady in Blue” could very well be that record’s 13th track. In what can only be described as David Lynch directing a scene set in a jazz club on another planet, “Lady” finds Amos crooning over an unsettlingly discordant mash up of moody synths, flutey mellotron, and a cracking-whip drum loop. “Boys play well into midnight,” Tori sulks, “can I join you?” And following her final asking, she declares that she “can play too”, her signature Bosendorfer kicking up in the mix, the song exploding into a three minute jam band outro. It’s the kind of track so bold and unusual in its conception that it re-contextualizes all that’s preceded it, and reminds us of the magic that can happen when an imagination as restless as Amos’ gets it exactly right.—Joe Vallese
Key Track: “Lady in Blue”
Take a Closer Look: “Police Me”
Read: PopMatters’ interview with Tori during the Abnormally Attracted to Sin era.
The Beekeeper (2005)
In many ways, Amos’s 2005 release The Beekeeper proved her most surprising yet. Following the well-deserved success of the mature sound she cultivated with the challenging but accessible Scarlet’s Walk, it was anyone’s guess in which direction her sonic impulses might swing. When the first press released dropped, so too did the jaws of many a diehard: Gospel choirs! Hammond organs! Afro-Cuban drums! Running with the sparse details, her devoted online community painted a wishful portrait of the much-imagined “sequel” to Amos’ own beautifuldarktwistedfantasy, Boys for Pele. But once the lead single “Sleeps with Butterflies” surfaced, with its breezy and unimposing piano line, romantic guitar accompaniment, and ultra-warm vocals cooing lines like, “are you having/regrets about last night?” it became clear she had something entirely different in mind.
And here’s where The Beekeeper gets, well, sticky: at 19 tracks divided into six “gardens”—the limited edition release included a seed packet to grow your own wildflowers—it seemed Amos simply had too much on her mind. Rightly praised by critics as a gentler, more approachable Tori, the record is undeniably gorgeous and, content wise, there’s a clear thematic through-line of love, loss, and betrayal (on the Damien Rice duet, “The Power of Orange Knickers,” for example, she boldly denounces adultery as a form of terrorism).
But the record also has a tendency to confuse: in addition to its uncharacteristically tranquil sound, Amos also puts her cheeky sense of humor on full display, beat-boxing her way through “Cars and Guitars” (where she uses mechanic jargon and makes sexual metaphor from the contents of a toolbox); name-checking the shoe floor at Barney’s in the hokey “Hoochie Woman”; and damning the otherwise deliciously blasphemous “Original Sinsuality” with its punny title. Though the promised organ and drums are present on the record, apart from a few tracks, the Hammond is often relegated to the atmospheric (the powerful opener “Parasol”; the political rant “General Joy”; the witchy, lite-funk of “Sweet the Sting”) and Matt Chamberlain’s reliably exquisite playing of those ethnic drums at times melts away in the mix (a re-mix of one of Amos’ better breakup ballads “Goodbye Pisces,” where Chamberlain’s acoustic and electronic drums layer and slap at one another, is sorely needed).
Incongruities aside, The Beekeeper is also brimming with moments where Amos reminds us of her peerless abilities as a composer, lyricist, and producer: the compassionate and subtle “Mother Revolution” may be the finest anti-war elegy put to record; the brazen and sermonic “Witness” boasts the album’s most striking and nuanced use of the Gospel choir, their harmonies soaring and scatting over Amos’ frenetic organ work; the final two minutes of “Barons of Suburbia,” a feverish battle-cry against leeching record companies and other bullies of the patriarch, arguably come closest to capturing the uninhibited passion of her live performances on a studio recording; and with the sweeping “Marys of the Sea,” Amos has penned the definitive take on the ambiguous relationship between Jesus and the Magdalene (but nice try, Gaga). It is the haunting title track, though, that transports the listener to another place entirely as only Amos can, as she finds herself bargaining with Death to spare her sickly mother. “I have come for the Beekeeper,” she obstinately declares over the mournful wheeze of the Hammond and a chilling electronic loop that mimics knuckles rapping on a door, “I know you want my Queen/Anything but this.”
It is the presence of this Tori, the one vulnerable yet unafraid to look danger in the face if it means having questions answered and curiosities met, that reminds us no matter how divisive her latter-career dalliances, she’s still in complete, unapologetic control.—Joe Vallese
Key Track: “The Beekeeper”
Take a Closer Look: “Ireland”
Watch: “Sleeps With Butterflies”