Abnormally Attracted to Sin
75:50 min • Island • May 18th, 2009
“I want to make audio mescaline,” Tori Amos states in the press release that accompanies Abnormally Attracted to Sin. In this, her tenth studio album, she does just that. From the hypnotic ‘Flavor’ through to the richly textured ‘Starling’ and the playful ‘Mary Jane’, Amos creates a lush sonic soundscape, as she ranges through the emotions of the stories she tells and the wide range of the music carries the listener with her.
The first track, ‘Give’, is probably the most impactive opening gambit on a Tori Amos album since From the Choirgirl Hotel’s ‘Spark’. From its opening beat and otherworldly production there is immediately a sense that she is shifting into new terrain. Amos has described it as a song in which the piano is there, but in a strange world. The place of the piano on the entire record is, in fact, unlike that of previous works. This is key to the idea of the album, and one to which I shall return. The steady drums on ‘Give’ provide a stable axis whilst the other elements of the track orbit around their dependable beat. One can feel that the melody of ‘Give’ creates a circular motion as Amos sings the chorus:
Soon before the sun
before the sun
begins to rise
I know that I
I must give
so that I
I can live.
And that is the point, that is the story that the opening track and the record itself tells: there needs to be a circle of give and take to keep her steady in the world, to keep her both in motion and developing.
With this statement made Amos launches into ‘Welcome to England’, the first single from Abnormally Attracted to Sin, and probably one of the most accessible tracks for new listeners. Its bouncing pop rhythm and galloping piano masks the melancholic tale that surfaces through its lyrics. This is not a maudlin track by any means for it epitomizes the albums maxim, which urges change and claiming back personal power.
There are throughout Abnormally Attracted to Sin a marked amount of songs that slowly build and gather a momentum which creates a powerful, forceful statement. This is more of a noticeable trend than on any of Amos’ previous records. The soundscape she is creating is built around the message. This is a careful and very precise artistry. ‘That Guy’ is a pressure cooker of a track, tonally reminiscent of a Bond theme song but told from the other side. It is not a celebration of an untamed masculinity but a questioning of it. The narrator sings, as the song hits its peak,
Do we make up to break up?
Do we break up then wake up
to cuts instead of kisses?
The piano makes only a scant presence in this song because like its subject matter, the woman singing is there but not there.
That pain is present again in ‘Starling’. The singer is confined to her nest and sings
If a feather lined with his words becomes a blade
then what will it take to make it through another day?
‘Starling’ is a tightly written, sparse track, which is dominated by two guitars playing off each other with an underlying percussion track. In the chorus the guitars are replaced with a military marching drum offset by pipes.The percussion thickens as the song progresses and then the guitars break out and work with the drums as the singer realises she is singing someone else’s song. ‘Starling’ tunes out and in launches the powerful juggernaut track ‘Fast Horse’. The military style drums and the pipes return for the chorus, which creates a tonal consistency in the song that is mirrored by the message, in which the narrator “engaged in some kind of advanced shackling”. It is another track in which the piano is not really there, with only the smallest of cameos.
The piano however takes centre stage, in ‘Ophelia’ a track in which a woman is yet again the focus and subject of the story. This is possibly Tori’s most feminist album since the sacrificial outing of Boys for of Pele with many tracks exploring that which is intrinsically feminine, like the relevance of motherhood and how it is fundamental to the stability of society, in the moving ‘Maybe California’.
If control, pain and masculinity are the subjects that thematically thread Abnormally Attracted to Sin into a whole, then it is the use of sound, which binds it aurally. Tori hasn’t been this expressive with sound since Choirgirl Hotel, creating tracks so rich with depth, that when she sings about being on the fringes of the galaxy in ‘Flavor’ you are carried musically through the expanse and experience its vastness. It is another epic achievement from Tori Amos, who is still fresh, interesting and original after twenty years of making records.