Tori Amos: Abnormally Attracted to Sin

You might be surprised, the way a little sin can pull you back in.

Tori Amos

Abnormally Attracted to Sin

Label: Universal Republic
US Release Date: 2009-05-19
UK Release Date: 2009-05-18
Artist website

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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