Two decades and ten albums into her career, Tori Amos has her fair share of detractors. You can hate her odd pronunciation, blunt sexuality, enigmatic lyrics, and willingness to cover (some say “butcher”) classic tunes. And if none of that bothers you, maybe her rabid fan base does. Any teenager in the 1990s was either an Amos fanatic or knew someone who was. These Toriphiles collected all the singles to get the b-sides, followed her from city to city, and made mixtapes to convert nonbelievers.
This obsessive love for an artist isn’t entirely unheard of, but Amos, with her red hair and pale skin, was different because at the center of the hoopla was a woman writing her own songs, playing a piano, and not looking like the male rockers or Top 40 artists. What drew so many fans to her work, myself included, was her willingness to do whatever the hell she wanted. She intelligently covered some bold topics, such as her religious upbringing, rape, masturbation, and loneliness. And her music was exciting. For example, several tracks on the epic Boys for Pele had the harpsichord where most artists would have bass or guitar. Over the course of her first three albums, Amos amassed an impressive amount of artistic capital: Her devotees would go along for whatever ride she took them on.
Then in 1998 she began a trend she continues today: Alienating a portion of her fan base with each subsequent record. Her fourth album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, was the first time Amos worked with a full band and abandoned her girl-with-a-piano image, betraying the purists among her fans. Along the way she’s put out an album of covers, written sentimental songs about her daughter and husband, and released more concept albums than anyone should. On her latest release, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, continues to veer away from her roots, stumbling along the way but also achieving some surprising successes.
The album opens with “Give”, a cross of Middle Eastern flourishes and trip-hop grooves, resulting in a track that fits somewhere between Portishead’s debut and last year’s Alanis Morissette album. The track intentionally plods along while Amos drones, “Soon before the sun, before the sun begins to rise / I know that I, I must give/ so that I, I can live.” Between the monotonous drum loops, nearly inaudible piano, and cold vocals, “Give” quickly proves itself to be a mission statement of sorts for Amos. The stripped down track “Crucify” opened her debut Little Earthquakes and served as her anthem. “Give” is her once again putting herself on the line, only she’s 17 years older and a radically different artist.
What becomes clear during the 17 tracks spanning 72 minutes -other than the fact that Amos needs an editor-is that the songs that work best are the ones where she puts her career in perspective. “Curtain Call” sounds like an artist looking back on her body of work, weighing the compromises she’s made against the work she’s produced. When you hear her song, “By the time you’re 25 they will say, “you’ve gone and blown it.” / By the time you’re 35, I must confide, you will have blown them all / Right on cue just act surprised when they invite you to take your curtain call”, you can’t help but mentally flip through her catalog and wonder what she’d like to take back. The song is one of the few tracks focused on Amos’ famous piano work, and soft drums and guitars only accent her here and don’t detract from her.
That said, you can’t deny that Amos needs to look back at her catalog and realize her earlier albums were revered for several reasons, including their concise presentation. She’s been producing her own albums since 1996, and it’s become apparent that she could use some outside opinions on what to leave to the side, especially when you consider that this is her shortest album since 2001. Inoffensive but forgettable tracks like “500 Miles” and “Not Dying Today” sound like generic MOR fare compared to the rest of the album and are startlingly out of place. The cutesy story of a boy and his pot in “Mary Jane” make for a fun concert improv, but it has no place on the album.
Still, AATS proves that Amos has the ability to deliver stellar tracks, even if you have to wade through some filler to find them. Album closer “Lady in Blue” is a quiet, slinky throwback to lounge music for the first four minutes, cemented with the vampy lyrics, “I left the right man. / Said the Lady In Blue, “I left the right man.” / Boys play well into midnight”. Then the last three minutes have Amos’ band unleashing all the energy they saved up for the last 69 minutes.
The title track finds Amos toying with a synth-driven carnival sound she’s teased in past tracks but never fully delivered on until now. The title is lifted from a line in Guys and Dolls, and combined with Amos talking about sin (one of her trademark topics) and the noir artwork, this song is one of the times when Amos seems to fully realize her vision for the album. This, combined with other tracks like “That Guy” and “Fire To Your Plain”, suggest Amos wants to marry the glammed up sexuality of Depression-era starlets with modern sounds, and all prove she can do it. Tucked behind the vixen facade are hidden chirps, beeps, and intricate mixing techniques that are worth some quality time with a good set of headphones.
Yet, for every strong track, another creeps up to ruin the momentum. Amos has admitted she (erroneously) views b-sides as victims of the digital age and willfully includes them on albums so that fans have access to the songs, even if they don’t fit in the scheme. On the one hand, that’s a generous attitude and suggests that she knows a great song from a fun one, so her radar still works. But for the listener, even in the age of iPods, expecting us to make her edits is unfair and damages the idea of this album as a carefully planned listening experience. On a track-by-track basis, Amos is releasing some daring music. But you can’t help but wish she’d listen to The Decemberists’ Hazards of Love or St. Vincent’s Actor to see the merit of releasing taut but dynamic albums in 2009.