Yizzow, this is awesome. Amos retreats from the harsh sounds of her prior album, American Doll Posse, exploring, in large part, complex, ambiguous sides of the human experience with gorgeously welcoming music. Songwriting-wise it’s like The Beekeper but thematically coherent and without the scattershot experiments with Caribbean- and African-influenced songs. It’s like the lyrics of American Doll Posse or Boys For Pele with the music of From The Choirgirl Hotel or To Venus And Back. It’s her best album since Scarlet’s Walk and contends for her best yet.
There’s very little piano here, but if you still think of Amos as primarily a pianist you haven’t paid attention since the mid-90’s. The orchestration is expert, with rich, immersive textures enveloping you for the entire disc. From start to finish, Amos drugs you, hypnotizes you, seduces and enchants you, guiding you through a fantastical, sensuous world of dreamy harmonies, enrapturing melodies, and evocative lyrics, characters, and stories.
It seems like every Tori Amos review I write I have to deconstruct who she is and how she fits in to our cultural tapestry. She’s emblematic, to me, of a relatively new kind of superstar. In the last, I don’t know, 15 years or so, I feel like a new category of artists have emerged. These artists have had their flashpoint moments, been feted as the new, now thing, yet have settled into a role of constancy in our hyper-charged media environment. By constancy I don’t mean that their art stays the same; instead, I mean that they’ve found a loyal fan base and a new work by them merits mention for those paying attention, but for the most part they’re under the What’sHotNow radar. I’ve made this comparison before, but I would put Pearl Jam’s last decade or so into this category. Artists who are not in this category include U2 (too big, too much lavish praise for reinvention, plus No Line On The Horizon was very meh), Bruce Springsteen (sucks now), and throw a dart and hit a band that flamed out after an album or two or is still in the new and hot category.
What I’m building to here, and I’ve mentioned this before, too, is that these artists are hard to write about as a critic because they don’t give any easy storyline. There’s no tabloid material about extramarital affairs, African child adoption, or hospitalization for “exhaustion” to contextualize the works. It’s infinitely more satisfying to just appreciate an artist putting out quality work after quality work, developing their craft even if their voice was found and cozied into a decade or more ago. However, these stories just don’t move paper. We can’t congratulate ourselves on living a better life reading about their trainwrecked fairy tale while on the treadmill.
But Amos addresses this context as well. “Curtain Call” seems to be about walks with fame and failure to avoid the machine that’s built up and tore down the Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohans of the world.
Then you ram your hand into your bag
For a little friendly substance
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
Of course, this is far more pertinent to female than male celebrities, and here we get to another area where it gets hard to write about Tori Amos: not only is her music laced with feminine themes, it’s wrapped in obfuscation and mysticism so as to deter me from venturing in. I can’t get around it, though. A big part of my interest in Amos is her complete control of her female personae. She wears so many facets of the feminine throughout her catalog as to be simultaneously entrancing and off-putting, but always beguiling. On Abnormally Attracted To Sin, she covers prostitution (“Give”), a mother contemplating suicide (“Maybe California”), female celebrity (“Curtain Call”), surveillance and voyeurism (“Police Me”), and pubescent drug use and sexual experimentation (“Mary Jane”).
And speaking of Amos’ female personae, this is the deluxe version of this album, which includes a DVD with videos of all the songs here except “Mary Jane.” She plays her dolls from American Doll Posse in relevant settings (“Give” is in a nightclub, “Curtain Call” includes Hollywood’s Walk of Fame) shot in a grainy style. It’s good and somewhat enlightening, but it has more value to me as a collector’s item rather than something I’ll watch often.
But, to wrap up the review of the music, feminism is all over all of Amos’ releases. So what’s the story of this album? I don’t think it’s one of the easy stories, like one of departure or of “best yet” (it may be her best yet, but that’s not the story), but rather one of synthesis. Amos pieced together the best of what she’d done over the past 11-12 years and put it all into one fantastic package that’s instantly accessible but also revealing of greater depth upon examination. And for those still paying attention, that’s more than enough.
– “Give,” “Not Dying Today,” “Curtain Call,” “Abnormally Attracted To Sin”
– “Welcome To England,” “Strong Black Vine,” “Flavor,” “Maybe California,” “Fire To Your Plain,” “Police Me,” “That Guy,” “500 Miles,” “Mary Jane,” “Starling,” “Fast Horse,” “Ophelia,” “Lady In Blue”
Filed Between: Amos’ Scarlet’s Walk and Animal Chin (The Ins & Outs Of Terrorism)
Track Notes: After the fold… Continue reading