The Designer’s Drugs: Tori Amos
Stimuli: Tori Amos – Abnormally Attracted to Sin, Comic Book Tattoo
Annos: 2009, 2008
My allegiances concerning Tori Amos skew toward the 90s. From the Choirgirl Hotel ranks as one of my Top 5 albums, and just about anything else released in the decade could easily stand as its substitute. In the early years of the new millennium, however, a change in town began to show itself. If not a softening of content, it was a softening of presentation, specifically one of beat and bombast.
The evidence began with Amos’ conceptual cover album, titled Strange Little Girls. While it’s nigh impossible to dispute the heaviness of an album including Eminem’s wife-murdering “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” and Slayer’s “Raining Blood,” it was her first album to sound very subdued at points, hitting a total lull with what I hoped would be a stellar rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.”
The four albums to follow give varying degrees of the new tide. Both Scarlet’s Walk and American Doll Posse retained much of the romance that made the earlier albums so compelling, the former through frost and the latter through fire. But every once in a while a track would come up which would give the whole album an inconsistent feel. Between those two albums, The Beekeeper shows Amos at her most sanitized. The old school pathos occasionally pops up, but the consistencies on this album are those of a major keyed pop singer-songwriter, and this collection of work is Amos’ least compelling.
The new album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin, is a largely conventional mixture of its predecessors that takes several adventurous leaps. The most blatant of these jumps comes right at the beginning in “Give,” which sees Amos playing Portishead’s game of trip-hop. Following the opening are the soft drums and guitars which accompany Amos on the album’s first single, “Welcome to England.” It’s a good track, though not heart-arresting.
The remainder of the album unfolds on various sides of Amos’ songwriting fence, alternating between solo piano work and band fare. Of the piano work, the best comes in a bizarre dope ode titled “Mary Jane,” which features the disc’s most ornate and grandiose key work. On the ensemble side, the orchestration leans toward heavy, low tempos that can sound a bit more synthy than usual. The exception to this is in “Not Dying Today,” which is a bright, poppy song in the Beekeeper vein. The album’s title track is perhaps its best, a moody, electronic piece where guitars buzz overhead and occasionally crash to the ground.
This is a well-made offering from an artist still seeking growth, but there’s not much here that grabs the listener. Then again, that might not be so bad in this case. It’s in the combination of the album’s lack of titanic moments with Amos’ superior songwriting, orchestration, and performances that make Abnormally Attracted to Sin mainly listenable as a full album. It’s strongly in the middle of this decade’s works, but it may be Amos’ most consistent work of that era, and one worth obtaining for the already converted.
Over the years, those fans have developed into a fanatical crowd of people, and Amos has experimented with different mediums to get her word out to that public. As of late, these roads have mainly involved deluxe editions of her albums, which generally offer video footage surrounding the album. While the Easter Egg approach isn’t unheard of, Amos treats it as more than a nub tail add-on. Instead, these bonus discs have become consistent extensions of the sonic art, blending those paints into light and vision. The most unusual of these offerings came with The Beekeeper, which carried seeds within its deluxe packaging.
In 2005, Amos co-wrote a book which blended her personal and professional biographies into a somewhat unconventional tome. Titled Piece by Piece, the book detailed Amos’ upbringing, sexualized feminism, record label battles, songwriting styles, and intentions behind individual songs. It wasn’t quite a how-to, nor was it a strict memoir or interview piece, and while it was an interesting read, it seemed largely designed to appeal to confirmed fans.
Last year, however, brought something wholly different to the table, an addition to the Tori Amos mythology which was created wholly by its followers. Comic Book Tattoo is pretty much what its title implies – a collection of Amos-inspired comics. Due to the association between Amos and Sandman author Neil Gaiman (who pens the introduction), the translation from music to comics seems inevitable, or at least easy. Still, to my knowledge this is the grandest such translation, its only rivals for that distinction being Kiss, Coheed and Cambria, and Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance. None of those challengers, in any event, have produced a book of this weight.
This book is huge, 480 pages of coffee table book that chokes the coffee table. While it could have been resized to more conventional graphic novel dimensions, the intent here was clearly to create an art book to match the music interpreted. And it delivers. Over 50 stories fill the tome, each one created by a different team with vastly different styles and perspectives on Amos’ work. The end result is a creative explosion that easily ranks among comics’ finest anthologies. The majority of the stories are imaginative and beautiful, worthy of the songs covered.
The stray nail which catches me is when the stories get a bit too literal in their appropriation of Amos’ work into their visions – particularly, in using the lyrics. Sometimes a story gets too similar to that point in certain movies when a character will actually invoke the movie’s title, which makes me cringe as much as seeing the guys who wear a band’s shirts to its own show. When one of these stories holds up Amos’ words and allows them to dictate the tale, (guess what “Bouncing off Clouds” is about,) it can come off as lazy, ignoring the greater context of songs that are much more than lyrical. The content of this book, by and large, is an excellent translation, and these direct liftings of direction are rarely needed.
So what’s next? Likely, it won’t be what’s expected.