What Tori Amos has struggled to do over the past decade is strike a balance between her mile-wide self-indulgent streak and her equally boundless creative ambition, and that problem has diminished her reputation as one of her generation’s headiest artists. Since 1999’s To Venus and Back, it has become difficult for anyone outside of her ever-diminishing cult following to endure her cloying wordplays, not to mention her obtuse, structurally unstable album concepts that require more ontological research than a philosophy student’s graduate dissertation. Still, even at her most fey and insufferable (her flat-out creepy recitation of “97 Bonnie and Clyde” from Strange Little Girls or the entirety of the deadly-dull The Beekeeper), there has been something admirable about Amos’s willingness to challenge conventional notions of the types of ideas and expectations a pop artist can incorporate into his or her work.
That said, it’s a genuine relief that Abnormally Attracted to Sin lacks the cumbersome structural conceit of Scarlet’s Walk or the dissociative identity disorder of American Doll Posse. Rather than suffocating her songs under a pretentious broad construct, here Amos allows them to stand on their own merits and, in turn, demonstrates the superior craft upon which she first made her name. Sin simply offers the finest batch of songs she’s written since 1997’s extraordinary From the Choirgirl Hotel.
What impresses most about the set is that, even without a formally defined concept, the album emerges as a thoughtful, dense exploration of matters of faith, sanctimony, and vice. From the sultry “Strong Black Vine,” on which Amos struggles to reconcile her love-hate relationship with her religious upbringing, to “Maybe California,” a frankly stunning plea from one mother to another who is contemplating suicide, the ideas and images in play are complicated and prickly. The subversion of traditional Christian iconography on opener “Give,” with its “Some give blood/I give love” refrain, favorably recalls some of the best known material from Little Earthquakes, while “Flavor” cribs its critical choice between fear and love from Donnie Darko‘s would-be evangelist.
Even when Amos is writing songs as strong as “Not Dying Today” and “Fast Horse,” which boast two of the album’s standout melodic hooks, Amos’s self-indulgence does get the better of her. At 17 songs and well over 70 minutes, Sin reaffirms that the artist still desperately needs to develop an internal editor. Cutting a handful of songs would make for a less trying and more effective listen: “Ophelia” smacks of pandering to the angst-ridden teen girl demo that has long been one of Amos’s main constituencies, while the “break up/make up” couplets from “That Guy” are obnoxious. But even with its bloated running time, Sin is more thematically satisfying and sonically adventurous than anything Amos has recorded in years.