I’ve mentioned before that I pretty much live by the adage, “Expect nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed.” But as much I tried to carry that idea over to Tori’s new album, it proved to be impossible. It’s really all Tori’s own fault. She set such incredible heights for so long (Little Earthquakes through From a Choirgirl Hotel and then Scarlet’s Walk), that she’s had to fight the burdens of those high standards with every new release. And let’s face it, those standards have slipped with her last few albums. The Beekeeper was bland and utterly forgettable, with Tori stranded on an island of mediocre AOR material. American Doll Posse saw her amp up her energy level (as well as the rock quotient), but the album was simply overbloated, with too few Tori-ffic highlights and way too many songs that sounded indistinguishable from one another. And the concepts behind both albums were both more tiresome than inspired, adding nothing to the music itself except unnecessary distractions.
So it was with a mixture of kid-on-Christmas-Eve expectation and oh-no-please-don’t-mess-this-up-Tori dread that I approached Abnormally Attracted To Sin. I tried to keep an open mind as possible and told myself not to jump to judgment. Now that I’ve listened to the album over and over for a week now, I finally feel pretty sure in how I feel about it. So, the bottom line of course is, does the album rock? Or does it suck? Well, it’s not a question that can be answered quickly and simply.
Let’s start with the good. AATS is one of the best-produced albums of Tori’s career. It’s a huge plus, especially coming after the Beekeeper’s uncooked blandness and ADP’s muffled sound. Much of AATS is about building up an electronic ambience based on multi-layered sounds, and the production really shines to make it happen.
What’s not as good is the sequencing of songs. Some sequences may as well have been chosen out of a hat, as the emotional flow of the album goes back and forth and up and down like the silver ball in a pinball machine. It comes off schizophrenic often times, at least until the final few songs when the song order finally starts to make sense. In this aspect, AATS recalls Under the Pink, which also relied on the last group of songs to really find its own identity (though the albums have little in common musically). And again, there is the matter of the need for editing, as a tighter batch of songs would have helped the album immeasurably, a la American Doll Posse. It’s almost as though Tori wants to take us to all-you-can-eat banquet and inviting us to take the goodies in any order we’d like, to satisfy each and every taste possible. Admirable and generous, perhaps, but probably not the formula to making an album masterpiece.
With those things in mind, let’s break things down song-by-song:
1. Give: This is a rather new sound for Tori, as she sings in her lower register over a trip-hop beat. It’s very Portishead-sounding, and it’s definitely an intriguing beginning. But even as it seems to be building up to a big finish, the payoff never arrives. One really misses the magic Tori moment when she starts wailing like a banshee (e.g. “Spark”) or brings out the high notes (“Northern Lad”). Instead, it remains a tease of a song, and as a result, it begins to sound a bit tiresome upon repeated listens. Grade: C+.
2. Welcome to England: This one’s definitely a grower. It doesn’t grab your ears right away, but slowly, the song starts to get to you. The song’s airy, light melody is given weight and power by the solid production and by Tori’s subtly dark delivery. And make no mistake, this is no pretty little tale (a la the forgettable “Sleeps With Butterflies”), as Tori depicts a woman who follows a man to England (autobiographical much?) and finds herself lost in uncertainty. The understated bite she puts into “You gotta bring your own sun” speaks volumes. B+.
3. Strong Black Vine – This is the obligatory attempt at a glam rock, David Bowie moment for Tori, following in the line of songs like “She’s Your Cocaine” and “Teenage Hustling.” I didn’t like those songs, and I don’t like this one, either, as it just comes off obnoxious. D.
4. Flavor – We have the first of our sudden, erratic mood shifts as the loud, sputtering “Strong Black Vine” is followed by this slow, spacey electronic number. It’s also the first “Oh, this is awesome!” moment on the CD. Its sound is a bit similar to that of To Venus And Back’s slower numbers, but “Flavor” features a much stronger melody than anything on that album. A.
5. Not Dying Today – Well, that moment of beautiful introspection sure didn’t last long. This time, we’re off and running to… Jewel-land. Yes, that Jewel. I’m actually a fan of Jewel, but it used to drive me crazy when some of my friends would try to lump Jewel and Tori together (“Tori Amos? Oh, yeah, she’s like Jewel, right?”). Much of Jewel’s appeal was her sincere naivete, while Tori was everything but naive… well, at least not until this track, apparently. Even Tori’s voice sounds uncannily like Jewel’s, which is something I never thought I’d say. All in all, it’s not a bad song per se, but something Tori should leave to others. C-.
6. Maybe California – This is one of Tori’s most literal (i.e. easy to understand) songs ever, as it tells the tale of a mother who finds herself on the edge of suicide after her marriage has irrevocably fallen apart. Although the lyrics may be overtly simple, Tori saves things from falling apart with a pretty vocal and an even prettier melody. A-.
7. Curtain Call – Finally a song transition that actually works pretty well (the achingly sad “Maybe California” following the galloping “Not Dying Today” made no sense whatsoever) “Curtain Call” finds Tori reaching for her darkest, most ominous side, and she really finds magic here. The vocals, the music, the production, it all comes together and conjures up a beautiful darkness. It’s easily Tori’s best track since “Gold Dust” from Scarlet’s Walk. A+.
8. Fire To Your Plain – Here’s something else I NEVER, EVER thought I’d say: Tori does pure pop. I’m not talking about a pop-tinged number like “Concertina.” I mean, real bonafide POP. Seriously, this wouldn’t sound out of place at all on a Beyonce or Kylie Minogue CD. What’s maybe even more amazing is that I actually dig it! It’s catchy, and Tori delivers a slyly sexy vocal that works perfectly with the song. Definitely THE guilty pleasure of the CD. B.
9. Police Yourself – By far the most annoying song on the CD. I recommend you don’t listen to this more than twice, as you’ll have that refrain (“Police yourself, police ME!”) pounding in your head for days afterwards. I don’t mean it in a good way. Seriously, listen at your peril. D-.
10. That Guy – Now we find Tori on Broadway. She’s been working on a musical (“The Light Princess”), and the effect is clear here. I have very mixed feelings about this one. The song’s rather meandering, with some parts that are just way too cabaret. That being said, it also features Tori’s best vocals on the whole album. In the end, though, it’s all just a bit too precious for its own good. C.
11. Abnormally Attracted To Sin – This is possibly the most schizophrenic track on a very schizophrenic album. She’s still singing in the broad, Broadway style, while the backing music has suddenly returned to trip-hop. Strangely enough, it all kinda works in a bizarrely hypnotic fashion. I also love the opening line, “Impeccable pecadillo,” as it brings to mind Tori’s glorious nonsense openings from songs past, like “Tuna, rubber, found a blubber in my igloo, yeah” (“Marianne”) and “Father, I killed my monkey” (“Bliss”). B.
12. 500 Miles – Okay, now we’re back in Jewel-land, or possibly Sheryl Crow-land. It’s almost somewhat catchy, but in a cheap, won’t-respect-yourself-after-you-hear-it kind of way. Best to stay away. D.
13. Mary Jane – This is the only song on the album that finds the piano at the front and center. You heard me right. Just as in American Doll Posse, it’s the guitar that’s Tori’s muse now (we’re a long, long way from Little Earthquakes, my friends). This cute, short ode to ganja would’ve fit in perfectly on Under the Pink, but it’s certainly nothing memorable. C-.
14. Starling – Another musical moment of schizophrenia. “Starling” starts off brooding and atmospheric before suddenly turning all bright and cotton candy happy with its bridge and then returning to its brooding. It’s a bit psychedelic, and it’s strange, but it’s also kind of cool, and Tori somehow pulls it off. B-.
15. Fast Horse – Now this is the kind of song Tori should be doing if she is insistent on tackling pop rock. It’s catchy, but there’s nothing cheap about it, and Tori sounds confident and completely in control of where the song is going. B+.
16. Ophelia – This song really encapsulates the change in Tori’s sound over the last few years. It starts off with just Tori and her piano, a sparse melody being unfolded. Then in a jolting moment, the guitars suddenly kick in. It’s both kinda thrilling and kinda mood-breaking. Still, the song’s classic-Tori beauty just can’t be denied. B+.
17. Lady In Blue – Again, we have the same metaphor on play, Tori’s piano giving way to a sea of crashing guitars. This time, the guitars last just way too long and play out their welcome fast. Still, it does allow for a dramatic finish to the album. C-.
All in all, there are a lot of great tracks to be found in Abnormally Attracted To Sin. But to really get a hold of them, you’re going to have to help Tori along. As the album is, it’s just too long and too strangely sequenced to make a whole lot of sense. Personally, this is the personalized version that I’ve decided on (it gets progressively darker):
1. Fast Horse
2. Fire To Your Plain
3. Welcome to England
6. Abnormally Attracted To Sin
7. Maybe California
8. Curtain Call
If I can be allowed to consider my version as an album on its own, I’d rank it right up there with Scarlet’s Walk and Under the Pink (under the holy trinity of Little Earthquakes, Boys For Pele, and From a Choirgirl Hotel). As it is, it’s got a few too many misses for it to be considered a truly great album by Tori standards, but it is certainly very good (far better than the Beekeeper and considerably better than ADP). Overall, I am happy that Tori is still continuing to evolve and take chances as an artist (“Flavor” and “Curtain Call” truly break new ground for Tori), and I’m still proud to call her Tommyland’s favorite artist. Keep rockin’, Tori (but maybe a bit less guitar and a lot more piano the next time, please).
EDIT: More weeks have gone by, and I’m glad to report that AATS has really held up to repeated listens. And “Lady In Blue” has really, really grown on me (even the guitars at the end)! Now I’ll give it a B and add it as #11 on my revised track order.