Spoilers: I am an unapologetic Tori Amos fan.
I am convinced that Tori Amos is a character actress masquerading as a recording artist, specifically a sonic character actress. Since her departure from Atlantic Records, where she put out the most frank, personal collection of any of her female contemporaries, Amos has been proffering a new one-woman style of storytelling through characters, personae, and archetypes. She has played every role in these productions: from mother, wife and troubadour to entrepreneur and vixen. She’s even taken on Demeter and Mary Magdalene.
Abnormally Attracted to Sin
(Universal Republic; US: 19 May 2009; UK: 18 May 2009)
While she has become many different women in her career, Amos has remained a singular voice in the music world, despite the obstacles. Think of her as the intellectual set’s Madonna: constantly reinventing her image, her sound and her mise en scene. Like Madonna, she is routinely criticized and dismissed by the (largely male) music press, as many powerful women over 40 in the entertainment industries seem to be. Nevertheless, she is constantly challenging expectation and documenting her progress and process with a marksman’s precision.
Amos’ enterprise is an extraordinary machine. Each new project brings a rigorous new set of restraints and challenges, and the patented “Amos formula” has yet again been re-worked with her newest venture, Abnormally Attracted to Sin. With her first independent record (distributed by Universal), Amos pushes the role of “sonic character actress” even further, with a unique, noirish visual component. Dubbed “visualettes” by Amos, there are 16 moody shorts shot by a director named Christian Lamb—keeping perfectly in sync with Amos’ career-long exploration of religious iconography.
In the first short, for the disc opener “Give” (with its eerie chant of “some who give blood/I give love”), who should show up other than American Doll Posse’s alcoholic Aphrodite, Santa? She’s reckless, dirty martini in hand, sinking in a dark sea of shimmering synthesizers and vodka. Amos, in turn, administers a full dose of left-handed hellfire over looped, sex-drenched stomps and haunted house keyboards.
On the CD cover, it’s classic glam-Tori: holding an Eyes Wide Shut-esque mask in a room that evokes the satin surfaces of Max Ophuls, styled like a smoky-eyed starlet from the ‘40s, and in a crystalline sheath and Cleopatra necklace, Amos is ready for the ball, and also for the battle. “Strong Black Vine” is Amos’ own particularly alchemic blending of feminine sensuality and blustery cock rock that mixes elements from classics such as her own “God” with the smuttiest bits of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” and maybe a scrap of Ken Russell’s The Devils thrown in for good measure. It is aggressive, it is epic, and it is more than a little dirty.
I have listened to Tori’s records in many places, but this particular album was unveiled to me, inexplicably, two months before its release, in a publicists’ office in Manhattan. It certainly beats listening in a record store parking lot at midnight, as I did for From the Choirgirl Hotel, more than ten years ago. It’s been a long time since that record, and as sacred as it has become for devotees of the songstress, the new disc is a step back into this mold – structurally adventurous, sonically immaculate, and often jumping into very dangerous terrain without a net. As on Choirgirl, there are breathtaking breaks, thrill-ride bridges, and stunning vocal deliveries that provide Abnormally Attracted to Sin’s strong backbone.
Before the fan crowd whips out their flaming torches, it must be said that songs like “Fast Horse” and “Starling” refract Choirgirl’s world-weary melancholia in a way that references Amos’ past; but also, much like any working auteur, she uses these previous sonic landscapes as a launching pad for fresh ideas. Jane Campion’s films are all quite different from one another: The Piano and In the Cut couldn’t be any further apart in terms of style and mechanics. Yet, there is an unmistakable signature that identifies their maker, the woman who bore them. Amos’ masterful debut, Little Earthquakes, has little in common, sonically, with Abnormally Attracted to Sin, yet both are signature “Tori”.
A menacing new energy haunts the new record, but you also hear a nostalgic bit of bubbly electronica from To Venus and Back here and a sweet, folkloric smattering of Scarlet’s Walk there. Sometimes both appear simultaneously, as on the dynamic single “Welcome to England”. The title track, a quintessentially-Amos jaw-dropper, references the textures pulsing steadily on the title track of The Beekeeper, with its various loops and blips and free-floating space jazz. “Honestly, we had quite a hard time doing it, because there are so many different styles,” said an ebullient Amos. “The electronic side, then the big strings, it was like going to many different shows at fashion week.”
Closing with the elegant David Lynch-at-the-Black-Lodge dirge of “Lady in Blue”, Amos delivers an atmospheric ode to staying up late, choosing the wrong man, and smoking. “Lady in Blue” is the story of a woman, who runs into a man who she still has feelings for, and he for her,” said Amos. “But she made other choices, and when he says ‘you left the right man/ pillow cold/ but she won’t stray into other lands’, he’s with another woman, he’s with somebody else. He has a family. At that time in her life, she was just not at a place where she could settle down and so, in the end, she has her music and she recognizes that that is the resolve. He is not going to run off with her, but he still loves her. I felt that was important to the song, that it doesn’t give you that Disney ending, because life, a lot of times, isn’t like that.” The breakdown at the end of the song gets particularly gnarly in an homage to the electric arena rock of the singer’s last record, the underrated American Doll Posse, and it is one of Amos’ finest, grandest album finales, epic in design.
The towering assembly of the album as a whole rivals the best of any current U2, Coldplay, or REM record. Like the big boys, Amos has consistently made the Billboard Top Ten each time out of the gate, yet there is very little acknowledgement of the fact she has been on board as producer since the beginning, alongside her team of sonic engineers Marcel Van Limbeek and Mark Hawley (also Amos’ husband and guitarist). Is there still a place in the oft-pretentious world of modern rock ‘n’ roll for a woman over 40, married with a child, living outside of the conventional systems, who isn’t afraid to give up the sadness, the shoes or the sex?