[19 May 2009]
Oh god, 70-plus minutes again. Haven’t we been through this enough already? Hasn’t Tori Amos, after three consecutive albums that crossed the same threshold, gotten this out of her system yet? Isn’t she about due for the pared-down back-to-basics album that every artist must create after spending too long on bloated, overlong vanity projects?
Granted, there has been merit to every single one of those other 75-minute beasts of albums—Scarlet’s Walk was a frequently brilliant, beautiful story, and The Beekeeper was one of those questionable albums that slowly turns into a masterpiece the more you listen to it, read about it, and learn about everything that makes it what it is. Amos’ willingness to talk in such detail about the latter album was part of what made it such an indispensable album, because a nigh-impenetrable wall of treacle turns into an intensely personal document of inner turmoil. The problem is, we’re losing patience, because it seems that Amos has turned exclusively to those impenetrable walls, only allowing us the briefest of glimpses at the naked catharsis (because really, does “Fat Slut” even count?) that she was once so adept at presenting for us. There’s no doubt that the songwriting is as personal, as wrenching, and as conflicted as ever, but when it’s hidden in reverb, metaphor, and affect, it becomes harder and harder to want to look for the emotion underneath the songwriting that has for better or worse grown up on us.
It’s that very pattern that makes American Doll Posse so puzzling, because the inclination given that which preceded it is to assume that there’s something deeper to be found than the mood pieces that were so clumsily put together on that album. Granted, bits of it were fun and easy to rock out to, and it makes better wallpaper than most other albums of its girth, but it retained the guarded feel without the mystery of Scarlet and The Beekeeper. Moments of it sounded like a songwriter trying to break out of the shell she’d built for herself, but mostly failing miserably.
In that context, perhaps we can look at American Doll Posse as a transitional work, given that the hype is for real, and Abnormally Attracted to Sin is the first album since perhaps To Venus and Back to truly engage the listener on a visceral level, and on the first listen no less.
That’s not to say that Ms. Amos is raging here. One could infer from the very title that this is an album to be absorbed with a raised eyebrow and a sly grin. Abnormally Attracted to Sin is not the title one gives a work in which one is purging the demons of the past, present, and future, rather, it’s the title one gives a work when one is tired of playing it safe, when one is looking to dip a toe—and perhaps no more—into the black waters on the other side of the spectrum. You hear it in opening track “Give”, a song that recalls A Perfect Circle’s more ambient moments, when she sings words like “Soon, before the sun begins to rise / I know that I must give / So that I can live” in that beautiful way that indicates she knows just what she’s doing when she offers words so vague, yet so foreboding. You hear it in the seven-minute epic finale “Lady in Blue”, when she pulls the sublime trick of actually closing her mouth for the song’s final minute and a half, as if to say she’s stepped off the ledge, goodbye, goodbye, listen to the band, goodbye. Rather than something meditative, it’s something triumphant, something only possible from a woman freed of the expectations of what she’s supposed to be.
The songs in between are the exploration of the journey from that dark, quiet beginning to that beautifully indulgent conclusion, and boy are there some twists and turns along the way. Some songs recall her past: “Flavor” is the direct inverse of Venus’ “Lust”, outside looking in rather than the other way around, yet still just as quiet and conteplative. Some songs recall the times: would “Not Dying Today” ever have happened without the success of Vampire Weekend? Much as I’d like to think so, it’s not entirely clear. And then there are the moments unlike anything she’s ever done, like the title song—“Abnormally Attracted to Sin” is like the electronic experiments of From the Choirgirl Hotel crossed with film noir, with an acoustic guitar break for a bridge, and it all just sort of works.
Perhaps most satisfying of all of it is the realization that “Maybe California” is as wrenching a song as she’s ever written, so quiet in its despair, but so clear at the same time. “As mothers we have our troubles / You’ll leave them with emptiness for their lifetime / All their wishes will be dashed upon those cliffs,” she sings as we hear one of the most rational arguments against suicide ever put to song.
And yes, there are wrong turns—at least, it sounds like there are, right now. This is the danger with trying to dissect a Tori Amos album so close to its release date, that six months, a year, two years from now, you’ll hear something in a song that you never heard before, and you’ll regret writing it off all that time ago. For now, “500 Miles”, “Fast Horse”, and “Police Me” all sound like mid-tempo drivel bordering on cliché, or as close as Tori Amos can get to cliché. Yet, when that which surrounds those errant children is so strong, so somehow vibrant in its slinky smoothness, you’re willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
If you’ve grown weary of wandering around in Tori’s head, not quite sure what’s emotional or what’s just empty metaphor, if you’ve committed yourself to avoiding her recent output for fear of being disappointed again, do come back for one more go ‘round. Ignore that 70-minute timestamp and try to appreciate what’s here; you might be surprised, the way a little sin can pull you back in.