Monday, 6 July 2009

Safe behind the curve: that Tori Amos review at last...

On some level, I've never forgiven Tori Amos for getting married. Not because she didn't marry me, you understand (well, okay, maybe slightly...), but because I was afraid that domestic bliss might interfere with her creativity - 'happiness writes white' and all that. I might have taken the album that came immediately after that marriage, From the Choirgirl Hotel, as proof that I was wrong, if I didn't know that many of the songs on that record were occassioned by the trauma of Tori's miscarriage. But the album that followed 'Choirgirl', To Venus and Back , was a much weaker proposition than any of her previous works. There were good tracks on there - '1,000 Oceans', 'Concertina', 'Glory of the 80s'; but there was an awful lot of filler, too. The experiments in using electronic production that added so much emotional content to Choirgirl degenerated, on Venus, into noodling gimmickry. Tellingly, the record company packaged it with a disc of Tori's fantastic live performances - the best reason to buy the package, and a tacit admission that without it the record would be of little interest even for completists.

There followed the time-honoured artistic holding action of releasing a covers album, though admittedly the album in question, Strange Little Girls , was brilliant. Tori's version of 'Raining Blood', for example, is much scarier than Slayer's original, the flashes of beautiful colour added by Tori's voice performing something of the same function as the touches of painterly brilliance in Francis Bacon's works - accentuating the horror by contrast. But a doubt remained in my mind: was this it? Was it covers from now on? Would the last original Tori Album be the mediocre disc they'd had to package with a concert?

And then September the 11th happened.

Actually, I'm messing with chronology here somewhat - I only heard Strange Little Girls after the attack, indeed it was one of the three albums I took with me on my trip to London the week after, a strange and memorable time to be in that city - flags at half-mast, an air of paranoia, every random event charged with significance like a novel by Burroughs or Iain Sinclair. On the last day of my stay they pulled a torso from the Thames just opposite Tate Modern - if I'd booked a later train I'd have been on the scene to see them do it. Nothing to do with me officer, we're Reform Houngans in my voudoun temple. But I digress...

Tori's response to what Stockhausen rather overexcitedly called 'the biggest work of art there's ever been' (over-excitedly, but not wrongly: the purpose of the attacks looks, at this distance, more like an overblown piece in the immature, shock-happy idiom of the Viennese Actionists than any meaningful act of warfare - and we should note that Stockhausen pointedly didn't say it was the best work of art, just 'the biggest') was to make the excellent Scarlet's Walk . I can't think of an unnecessary track on that album. It's the sound, musically and lyrically, of Tori grappling with a host of big issues: terrorism, religious fundamentalism, colonialism, her Native American heritage, racism, homophobia, sexuality, US history and politics - and, far from being overwhelmed, coming out decisively on top. The lyrics are masterpieces of compression, fitting multi-layered references and big concepts into tightly-packed lines, and musically it has the clear, plangent emotion of a work like Choirgirl or Little Earthquakes. Here was that rock journalist cliche, the 'return to form', for real.

And then she went and blew it again, with The Beekeeper . Described by Entertainment Weekly as 'the Tori Amos album for those normally freaked out by Tori Amos', which I suppose at least makes it useful for profiling purposes , The Beekeeper sounded, on paper, like an interesting proposition: a melding of the ideas in Buxton's The Shamanic Way of the Bee with an excavation of the suppressed feminine currents in Christianity, as represented by the figure of Mary Magdalene , it would be a kind of companion piece to Scarlet's Walk, exploring the Christian side of Tori's heritage. As so often, however, the engagement with the religion of the oppressor failed to result in good writing, not least because it coincided with the emergence of another, more populist take on the Magdalene myth: Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. A good rule for artists is to move on when the recondite becomes the mundane. When the masses take over what was terra incognita, the Invisible College decamps.

Sometimes into seemingly more quotidian areas. Tori's next record was American Doll Posse , a more conventionally politicised record which criticised the policies of the Bush administration while deep-mining Tori's history for a range of disparate sexual personae to adopt in writing. It was also more of a conventional rock album than her previous work - some tracks were even out-and-out pop - but look beneath the conventional structure and darker notions are to be found.

So, Tori's record so far, in this writer's opinion, is seven wins (every album up to and including Choirgirl, plus Girls, Scarlet and Posse), and one loss (Beekeeper) with Venus edging through as a draw on account of having a few good tracks and that live disc to salvage it. So, what to make of her new offering, Abnormally Attracted to Sin ?

Well, it isn't The Beekeeper, thankfully. I don't hate it. But then I don't have much of a strong positive reaction to it either. It's a competent album: sonically there are some interesting experiments in terms of production, and it has a sort of intriguing overall tone that reminds me, weirdly, of spy movies or Batman Returns , but the record as a whole seems to lack the sense of urgency of a Choirgirl or Boys for Pele, it's as if the need to make a record has dictated the project, not the need to say anything specific.

Don't get me wrong, there are quite a few good tracks:'Strong Black Vine', 'Police Me' and 'Starling' stand out, on this first couple of listens, as the kind of beautiful yet disturbing fare we've come to expect from Tori, 'That Guy' is a beautiful song in the political vein of Posse (or at least that's how this guy interprets its reference to a guy who 'swears he will walk' and 'carries a chip the size of New York'), and 'Not Dying Today' is a jaunty little number which rocks along at a fair-old clip and also presents the obligatory shout-out to Neil Gaiman . But overall it falls into the Venus category, and doesn't have a live disc to redeem it. That said, I can't quite bring myself to chalk it up as a loss, but I can't in all conscience put it in the company of records like Choirgirl or Scarlet's Walk. So: seven wins, one loss, two draws. Not a bad record, all things considered. But I still think it might have been better if she hadn't settled down...

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