Review: Tori Amos' 'Ocean To Ocean' Contains Inward-looking Songs, Brave in Their Intimacy and Candor

by Kevin Schattenkirk

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 29, 2021

Review: Tori Amos' 'Ocean To Ocean' Contains Inward-looking Songs, Brave in Their Intimacy and Candor

"Ocean to Ocean" is Tori Amos' first album in four years, uncommon for one of the most prolific artists of our day. That said, Amos has been productive in the time since — she contributed a gorgeous cover of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" to the 2019 series "Good Omens" (based on the book by the late Terry Pratchett and Amos' good friend Neil Gaiman), penned a revealing book about the political and personal in her work, and released a four-song holiday EP at the end of 2020.

In England's third lockdown at the start of 2021 (Amos lives in Cornwall), an uncharacteristic depression compelled Amos to scrap an entire album she'd already made: "I thought I had failed, because I'd been hanging on to work that wasn't what I felt people needed to hear." This batch of songs came after she "went to the Muses prostrate... 'What do I need to do for you to come and visit me?'"

Amos' new album, her sixteenth, has been described as a "return to the kind of introspection" of her debut solo album, "Little Earthquakes" (1991), a totem of '90s alternative singer/songwriter rock. But such a description fails to acknowledge the intimacy in other, equally as personal, albums since then — particularly "Native Invader" (2017), "Abnormally Attracted to Sin" (2009), and "Scarlet's Walk" (2002). "Ocean to Ocean" shares connections with these records as well.

The yearning "Speaking With Trees" and spare "Flowers Burn to Gold" respond to the death of her beloved mother in 2019. "When you left, emptiness... I cannot let you go," Amos sings on the former. A melancholy tango, "Birthday Baby," written for her niece stuck navigating the pandemic alone in New York City, is also one of the most infectious tunes in Amos' catalogue.

Synthesized orchestral flourishes provide the jazz-inflected ballad "Swim to New York State" with a sense of restless, romantic longing to cross the Atlantic "for even just a day." Later, the moody synth-pop of "Metal Water Wood" considers the renewal of nature as an influence on getting back on one's feet.

The bluesy Hammond B-3 dusted "Devil's Bane" warns against falling for a charismatic but manipulative, possibly abusive, figure — "he was good at turning me against me." Later, "29 Years," with guitars recalling The Police, reflects on the long shadow of painful experiences over finding a sense of wholeness: "I've been searching for you... a most elusive truth, these tattered bits of me I've been piecing for 29 years." (Incidentally, whatever this might infer about the song's meaning, "Little Earthquakes" turned 30 this year.)

The "Magical Mystery Tour"-esque "Spies" provides some mid-album respite. Immediately following, the title track's simmering jazz-influenced verses open up into angry rock refrains addressing environmental neglect: "there are those that don't give a goddamn that we're near mass extinction... those who only give a goddamn for the profit that they're making."

Accompanying Amos' piano and vocals, the arrangements throughout are creative and colorful. "Ocean to Ocean" is also the first Amos album in 12 years to feature drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Jon Evans (both of whom also appeared on her "Christmastide" EP last year), which is certainly noteworthy. Having accompanied Amos on several albums and tours between 1998-2009, Chamberlain and Evans clearly understand Amos' music, and there's an undeniable synergy between the three musicians.

Where Amos' previous album, "Native Invader," felt most like a friend who consoles us over a cup of coffee, "Ocean to Ocean" finds the artist sitting "in the muck" with us, with inward-looking songs, brave in their intimacy and candor.

"Ocean to Ocean" is available now.

Kevin Schattenkirk is an ethnomusicologist and pop music aficionado.