Blame Facebook. Blame YouTube. Or blame the culture of bite-sized entertainment that is slowly eroding our ability to concentrate, but on the 14th track of Tori Amos’ new album Abnormally Attracted to Sin, your mind begins to wander. Then, by the time you hit the 73rd minute of this eighteen-track epic, you realise with panic that you've got to start the second half again, cause you missed it all.
Don’t get me wrong. This is almost a wonderful album. But like some other Tori Amos records, it’s an album that could easily have been two. Or - and here’s a suggestion - it could have been one album, with a little bit of quality control, meaning that some of the songs were taken off and used as b-sides, or packaged neatly and sent over to Asia as a bonus disc. What has happened instead is a body of work that, in its attempts to be generous to the listener, runs the risk of alienating them completely.
It starts well. Opener 'Give' is a dark slice of trip-hop that luddite Portishead fans would have killed to hear on their last record, with a sexy sideways glance of a lyric suggesting anything from S&M to blood-sucking. Meanwhile, current single 'Welcome to England' is both a return to classic Tori and autobiographical songwriting, and an indicator that this record is free from the high concepts that mark most of her 21st century output. While ostensibly claiming to be a study in sin and sinfulness, this album is at its best when the songs seem to come from a more personal place, as in 'I’m Not Dying Today', with the immortal lyrics "dying/ frying/ I’d rather have a lie-in" and "keep your hands off my ankles/ and my mister’s". Indeed, for the first eight tracks of this album, it’s almost as though we’re back in that glorious Tori Amos country, where the songs dart between story-telling and personal experience, spinning a fine line into a universal, female truth.
But then we hit the bonus disc.
Truthfully, I’ve tried to see what she sees in every song. If ten albums and twenty years of being one of the most original and uncompromising figures in music has done anything, it is to leave most people kindly disposed towards Tori Amos, and so, in the repeated and often fractured listens that made the run up to this review, I tried to see something in every song, be it a small nugget of sentiment in a lyric, or the little keyboard hook that meant she couldn’t throw it away. But there are still songs, like 'Police Me', 'That Guy', or the title track, that seem like they could have been drastically spruced up or, sorry to repeat the point, dumped. She’s been known to refer to her songs as ‘her girls’, and I can understand the difficulty of doing what the comic Chris Addison recently referred to as "killing some kittens", but what if in keeping those kittens alive, you are hampering the integrity of the other, stronger kittens? What if keeping these kittens alive is destroying people’s ability to enjoy or even care about the remaining kittens in the litter?
Now let me get this straight; Drowned in Sound is not advocating the actual killing of helpless baby animals, it’s a purely metaphorical concept, but it’s a useful one in this situation. Because by the time the tricky middle section is finished, peppered with the more distinctive and memorable 'Mary Jane' and 'Fast Horse', you’ve almost lost enough focus to miss some really stunning work in the closing moments. 'Lady in Blue' in particular, is a melodic tour-de-force coupled with a lounge jazz/ broadway-esque production that puts recent Joni Mitchell to shame. Then, as the final, dischordant piano stabs finish on 'Lady in Blue', we are treated to a period of space, and the understated melancholy of 'Oscar’s Theme' begins. It’s a moment of peace and a perfect ending to an album, but it is marred by the fact that it should have come half an hour ago.
Still, you’ve got to credit the woman. She follows her instincts, she honours her gut. And one gets the feeling that there’s a lot more thought behind each of these songs than the lyrics and melody denote. Having recently seen fifty of her songs turned into graphic novellas in the collection Comic Book Tattoo, maybe she’s started writing songs that demand an extended accompaniment in another media. There are so many points over the course of Abnormally Attracted to Sin where you hear the suggestion of a character that’s been sketched out for the sake of the song, like the two very different mother figures in 'Maybe California' or 'Mary Jane', and with Amos’ propensity for ploughing the imagination, it seems impossible that she would have left them as sketches. What seems more likely is that behind the generally quite abstract and non-committal lyrics of each of these songs, there exists an entire menagerie of characters and events in the brain of Tori Amos. And with this in mind, I’ll be interested to see what the DVD of "visualettes" that apparently accompanies this album is like. With even the forgettable songs standing out as exercises in atmosphere, it’s possible that a little imagery might pull them out and give them their own identity.
For those of you, however, who don’t fancy using all their senses to enjoy an album, the suggestion is some pruning. Maybe listen to it in two lots, with an interval in between, or import it into your iTunes and simply delete the ones you don’t like. Such is the beauty of the century we live in, that we should be able to exercise our own will in even the smallest areas of our life. This is an album that would have been better with the exercising of a little will on the part of its creator, but nonetheless, it shoots very close to the mark. Occasionally vague, sometimes incohesive and a little self-indulgent it may be, but ultimately Abnormally Attracted to Sin is an abnormally attractive piece of work, and another fine example of the shining talent that is Tori Amos.
7Ed Miller's Score