CD Review: Tori Amos, “Abnormally Attracted to Sin”

Written by CD Reviews, Music

I have been a Tori Amos for more than half of my life. I was 14 when I first saw the videos for “Silent All These Years” and “Crucify” from her 1992 debut album, Little Earthquakes, on MTV and I was intrigued. I kind of forgot about her until I came across her sophomore album, Under the Pink, at a mall record store in 1994. I bought it at the urging of a friend and the moment I heard the first note of that album’s first track, I officially became a fan.

Tori’s music came into my life at the perfect time — I was an angst-ridden 16-year-old with a bent for creative writing and a desire to find an outlet for my raging teenage emotions. Tori’s raw, confessional, lyrics struck a chord with me and I loved that her instrument of choice was the piano. I listened to Under the Pink over and over again for weeks and when I finally got around to purchasing Little Earthquakes, I did the same thing with it. I just couldn’t get enough.

After buying her third album, 1996’s Boys for Pele, and after seeing my first Tori concert that summer, I became a little obsessed — okay, a lot obsessed — with her and her music. A benign obsession, mind you; I’m no stalker. I started collecting any Tori-related items I could find, including singles, bootlegs, books, magazine articles; you name it, I had it or was trying to find it. I watched as many of her television appearances as I could and, because I had regular Internet access at the computer lab at my university, I slowly started becoming a part of the Tori Amos online community.

With every subsequent album release, my love of Tori’s music grew stronger. And with each tour she embarked upon, I saw more shows and attended as many pre-show “meet and greets,” a Tori tour tradition, as I was able. I first met her in 1998 and my 20-year-old self was over the moon. I constantly took flak from my friends and family about my Tori fandom, and my father was less than pleased with how much money I spent on buying her music and going to shows, but I didn’t care. In retrospect, I was a little ridiculous and it was pretty irresponsible to spend more money than I made on a musician. But I was young and when else can you do stupid things than when you’re young?

As I’ve grown older and my life has changed, so has my relationship with Tori’s music. I started to lose interest with the release of her 2005 album The Beekeeper. It was the first time I had been really disappointed by her. This album was not made by the Tori Amos whose music I had felt such a connection to since my teenage years. It was over-produced, had some really atrocious lyrics and overall just reeked of adult contemporary. There was an inkling of this on her previous effort, 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, but it was in full-force on The Beekeeper. Plus, she insisted on this nonsensical bullshit about gardens and “sinsuality” and I just couldn’t deal. I did see four shows on that tour, but it was the last time I would go out of my way to see her play. She was starting to piss me off.

American Doll Posse, her 2007 release, was also a disappointment. Another concept album (the woman has insisted upon releasing concept albums since 2001’s Strange Little Girls, much to my chagrin), but this time the concept seemed to involve multiple personalities. Each track on the album was performed by a different “doll” that was supposed to represent a different part of her personality and different mythological figures, each with their own wigs and costumes. And one of those dolls was “Tori.” The general consensus amongst many of my friends who are also big fans was “what the fuck?”

After she finished her 2007 tour in support of American Doll Posse, she started working on her first musical, Samuel Adamson’s adaptation of George MacDonald’s story, The Light Princess, for London’s Royal National Theatre. She had hinted during shows at the end of the tour that she wouldn’t be around for awhile, but Tori fans have learned that she’s pretty much full of shit when she says things like this. And that brings us to now and the release of her latest album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin.

As with every album since Scarlet’s Walk, this is a really long album. It has 17 songs (18 if you count the iTunes-only bonus track, “Oscar’s Theme”) and clocks in at over 72 minutes. Now, I didn’t have a problem with Boys for Pele and Scarlet’s Walk being so long because I love almost every song on both of those albums. But it is entirely unnecessary to keep making these epically long records in which half of the songs are b-side worthy at best. She really needs someone to help her edit herself and realize that there are other ways to get songs out into the world than putting them ALL on one record. If this album — and the two before it, for that matter — had been trimmed down to 11 or 12 of the strongest tracks, I would probably be writing an entirely different review right now.

Most of the gripes I have about Abnormally Attracted to Sin are gripes that I also had about The Beekeeper and American Doll Posse. First, let’s talk about lyrics. One of the things about Tori’s music that I used to really connect with was her lyrics. She used to be challenging, writing these almost indecipherable, but meaningful, phrases that I would spend hours trying to figure out. That opaqueness I once loved is now gone, replaced with a bland transparency that frustrates the hell out me. The only thing challenging to me about most of the lyrics on this album is not throwing something against the wall every time I hear her sing something like “Dyin’ Fryin’, rather have a lie-in,” “she said, ‘Get in and set the SAT-NAV to hell’” or “You got you a Fast horse darlin’ but all you do is complain it ain’t a Maserati.” And don’t even get me started on her oh-so-subtle ode to pot, “Mary Jane.”

And then there’s her enunciation. I know that she’s always been fairly precious in how she pronounces words when she’s singing, but lately it’s been more like she chews them like a wad of bubble gum. One of the first things I thought of when I heard the first single, “Welcome to England,” was that I couldn’t understand a damn word she was singing for most of the first verse or two because she sounds like she’s chewing her face. And listen to the chorus of the title track and tell me it doesn’t sound like she’s singing “I’m marmalade attracted to sin.” I laughed when I first read reviews from my friends in which they said they thought this was what she was singing, but then I heard the song myself. This woman could be the poster child for misheard lyrics because she mangles words to the point of sounding like she’s creating her own language. It’s not cute; it’s obnoxious and makes a perfectly good song, well, gross.

Another thing that I think is problematic is the fact that she hasn’t worked with an outside producer in fifteen years. And she’s been working with the same musicians, for the most part, for the past 11 years. She needs to change it up, get some fresh ears and a new perspective in the studio with her. I was telling a friend of mine the other day when she asked me what I thought of this album that in the early-to- mid-1990s, three of the powerhouse female singers in the modern rock world were Tori, Björk and PJ Harvey. Of the three, Tori is the only one who doesn’t work with an outside producer anymore. And of the three, Tori is the only one whose output, I think, suffers for it. I can understand the desire to have control over what you create, but I think that you also have to be open to the creative input of others. I’m not saying that she isn’t, but I do think she’s too unwilling to loosen her creative grip and it’s not helping matters.

As disappointed as I am in this album, I don’t dislike it entirely. There are some really strong tracks that hark back to Tori of old (well, at least To Venus and Back Tori). The Portishead-esque “Give” is a strong opener, with a trip-hop sound that she had started experimenting with in the late ’90s but pretty much abandoned after Strange Little Girls. It’s one of the best songs on the album and I can definitely see it being the standard show-starter on her upcoming “Sinful Attraction” tour. I’m also fond of “Strong Black Vine,” which has a string arrangement that sounds a lot like Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” “Abnormally Attracted to Sin,” despite the marmalade thing, and “Starling.”

Other tracks I don’t mind include “Flavor,” which is reminiscent of the To Venus and Back track, “Lust,” and “Curtain Call,” the opening piano intro of which reminds me of “Siren,” a song she did for the soundtrack to the 1997 film adaptation of Great Expectations. I hated “Fire to Your Plain” at first, but its growing on me, even though I think she really misuses the synths. “Lady in Blue” is too long and has not-so-great lyrics, but I like its jazzy feel. None of these cover new ground for her, but they’re tolerable.

The rest of the songs on the album are pretty forgettable, and some are pretty regrettable. On the forgettable side, we have “Welcome to England,” one of those adult-contemporary sounding songs that does nothing for me. It’s not quite as bad a choice of lead single as “Sleeps with Butterflies” or “Big Wheel” were from the last two albums, but not far behind. “Maybe California” and “Ophelia” are standard Tori ballads. Musically, they’re pretty, but the lyrics make them snoozers for me. Other forgettable tracks include “500 Miles,” which is not a cover of the Proclaimers’ song, “That Guy,” which sounds like it might have been a reject from the musical she was working on and “Fast Horse.”

Then there are the regrettable tracks, the ones I would be pretty happy if they didn’t exist at all. “Not Dying Today,” “Mary Jane,” and “Police Me” all tie for the “worst song of the album” prize. None of them are musically interesting, though “Police Me” has the potential to be, and the lyrics are horrible. These songs are embarrassing and I can’t believe someone didn’t tell her so.

If you purchase the deluxe edition of Abnormally Attracted to Sin, you also get the pleasure of owning the “visualettes” that go with each song. For those of you who don’t speak Tori, that means “videos.” They were mostly filmed during and right after the American Doll Posse tour by Christian Lamb, who also filmed Madonna’s last tour. I’ve seen them all and, for the most part, they consist of Tori, or Tori dressed as one of the “dolls,” walking around some city or field or something in haute couture. They’re okay, I guess, but I’ll probably never watch any of them again.

Okay, so I know this review has been long as hell, but so is the album! Also, I’ve had a lot of pent-up frustration about Tori and her music for the past few years and I really wanted to just get it all out. As negative as much of this review might seem, and as disconnected as I’ve felt from her music since after Scarlet’s Walk, I do still have hope. I love her live shows and will continue to see at least one per tour. I know she’s capable of releasing another amazing, consistent, beautiful record and I am rooting for her to do so. This just isn’t that record.

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