Tori Amos - Abnormally Attracted to Sin
The fact that Kylie hit album number ten in 2007 and Tori Amos is now only catching up is truly baffling. Given she's so prolific, conjuring up sideline projects that vary from live bootlegs to comic book anthologies, it's hard to forget that Little Earthquakes is not yet 20 years old. Abnormally Attracted to Sin (awful quote to use for a title, I have to say, although it does accompany the awful cover artwork) is a landmark moment then, the culmination of so much hard work from a woman who has provided me - and a devoted fanbase - with more sonic enjoyment than any other artist. How foolish of me to be worried that this would be a disappointment; a return to Eve and the garden after exploring 'original sinsuality' on 2005's much-maligned The Beekeeper seemed a redundant move, especially considering 2007's American Doll Posse represented such a return to form. The fact that the special edition of this album will include a bonus disc of 'visualettes' (not included here) also made me worry the songs maybe weren't strong enough to exist without corresponding images. Proof that I'm stupid, of course. This may not be as playful as Doll Posse but what it lacks in a light step it makes up for by being Amos's most cohesive set of songs since 1998's From the Choirgirl Hotel. It's also bolder in a production sense than any of her post-2000 output, representing an amalgamation of sorts by combining the sprawling nature of Scarlet's Walk, the electronics of To Venus and Back, and FtCH's dark and unhinged confessionals. Anyone who thinks that, after ten studio albums, Tori Amos is a spent force should really stop being so sinful.
It's clear from the opening moments of Give, where an eerie disjointed beat is eventually joined by warm washes of piano, that Tori means business. 'Do I have regrets? ...Well, not yet' she announces via a full-blooded vocal that carries this darkly rich concoction, which could easily be telling the story of a lady of the night as it could a bloodletting vampire. Lead single Welcome to England, initially dreary sounding, works in the context of the album, lying snugly on its bed of electronica immediately after the disarming Give. Although the heroine of the song seems to be struggling with her 'daily hell' upon our island, you can't argue with a song that enquires 'when your heart explodes, is it deathly cold?' and offers the solution 'let the colours violate the blandness, there is a magic world parallel'. But of course, now you put it that way. Those violating colours may be achieved through the Strong Black Vine that provides track three with its title. Not one for mincing her words ('Blown to bits, her innocent flesh to dust, all for a dark God, all for the love of some evil faith'), Amos promotes revelation through nature's own 'resources', wrapping up her anti-authority, pro-halluciogenics stance in a soulful and vampy performance - 'you might just see that sweet Jesus' she teases, never letting on if her own experiences led to such biblical visions.
From this strong opening onwards, the dedicated Amos fan will find little to complain about and much to embrace. The biggest criticism is one that has dogged her output since the new millennium, and I always feel ungrateful acknowledging it; this is her fourth consecutive studio album to have a running time of over 75 minutes. Such value for money is not something to be snarled at in this age of the disposable download but there are undoubtedly moments where, inevitably, quality control is not sustained. The title track is the most uninvolving thing here, an uneasy mix of squealchy electro and Queen guitars, while 500 Miles is pure drivetime; it's pretty enough but also pretty shallow. Not Dying Today, which goes for the same breezy vibe, is much better, contagious in its unapologetic optimism ('Dying, frying, I'd rather have a lie-in') and featuring a calypso rhythm that can't help make me think of Vampire Weekend - yup, Tori is totally down with the kidz. The song might not be for everyone but Amos really can't be accused of being lazy on Sin; for example, the truly odd Police Me, which sees a return of the freewheeling nymph of the Professional Widow days, might be off-putting to some, with its weird rhythm changes, lyrics about 'slutty goths' and squalling guitars BUT it's also a reminder that it's so much better to be experiencing a Tori who isn't playing it safe. On Mary Jane, she's quick to warn Regina Spektor and Amanda Palmer who's boss, on a skittish piano drama that casts Amos as a mother to the son who wants to 'permeate and discover the realms of the unknown' via the most certainly bud-like MJ.
The usual selection of ballads are given a leg-up thanks to the ambition lent by the production approach, meaning we have the beat-driven and coolly controlled Flavour next to the string-drenched tale of the suicidal matriarch that is Maybe California. On the flighty That Guy, Tori gives into the theatrical bent that has led to her collaborating on the upcoming Light Princess musical; it unashamedly combines all the best damsel-led showstopping numbers, the part in the production where Ariel laments her watery existence or Nicole dreams of a world outside the Moulin Rouge. No surprise then that this is also the closest Tori has sounded to - you guessed it - Kate Bush in quite some time. Curtain Call is more traditional Amos fare but no less essential, wherein Amos dispenses her world-weary wisdom to a generation of potential subservients who will be forced to take their exit, stage left, 'by the time [they're] 35'.
It's worth noting that this is the first Amos album in almost a decade that comes free of any overarching concept - it's not a travelogue, songs aren't grouped into 'gardens' and, while the tone fluctuates from track to track, its eclecticism is not explained away by the creation of 'doll' alter-egos. This approach has led to successful creative endeavours in the past but perhaps freeing herself from such shackles this time around has itself led to songs as startling as Starling, which opens with a series of weird clicking sounds and turns into a slightly creepy ride (choice lyric: 'when he screams, he screams in black and white') reminiscent of Spark, one of Amos's best and most underrated singles. Although it's reductive to dwell on the past, I'm happy to announce that personal favourite Ophelia would sit comfortably on what is, as it stands now, my favourite album of all time, 1996's Boys for Pele. Speaking of which, the flame-haired pyro who caused such blazing destruction on that album returns - in spirit at least - on Fire to Your Plain which, despite a lyrical reference to her sat nav being set to 'purgatory', boasts an 80s vibe thanks to jabs of icy synth. Elsewhere, we're treated to a windswept epic in the form of Fast Horse, while the lovely Oscar's Theme escapes its 'bonus track' tag by being as strong as many of the other tracks. Album closer proper Lady in Blue creates an atmosphere all of its own, a jazzy vocal revelling over a drawn-out opening that conjures up images of some dark 80s fairytale movie before collapsing into a four-minute extended jam. It has set closer written all over it, and I make a point now of saying that if I don't see this set of songs played live this year, my 2009 will be incomplete.