It’s been nearly 30 years since Tori Amos made her memorable debut with Little Earthquakes, and in that time she’s slowly moved away from the accessible pop-folk that made her name. Amos’ recent albums have been contemplative, quiet affairs that have heavily lent on her background as a classically trained musician.
Like most of the records that will appear this year, Ocean To Ocean was inspired, amongst other things, by the pandemic and recorded under lockdown conditions. As well as being under lockdown in her home of Cornwall with her husband, daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, Amos was also mourning her mother who died in 2019. That sense of loss, exacerbated by the hopelessness of being unable to travel anywhere, drapes the album in a sadness which it becomes hard to pull away from.
That’s not to say Ocean To Ocean is impossibly downbeat. Indeed, thanks to the return of the former Amos rhythm section Matt Chamberlain and Jon Evans (appearing on their first Amos album since 2009’s Midwinter Grace), the album contains some of her most accessible songs for years. Spies is a particular standout, bouncing along irresistibly as Amos tells, in her trademark eccentric way of various insects that found their way into her home during lockdown: “Thieving meanies below and above ground” and, even more bizarrely, “the hippopotamus must stay anonymous for now”.
Swim To New York State is at the other end of the scale, emotionally. Sombre strings give a yearning quality to a song about yearning for everyday things – “I’d swim to New York state from the Cornish coast of England, for even just a day” opens the song. It’s also impossible not to think of Amos’ late mother, given that this is a song about yearning for company that can’t be fulfilled. It’s one of Amos’ most emotional songs, which is saying something.
The opening notes of Devil’s Bane bring to mind the chill-out sound of early Zero 7 before settling down into a more traditional Amos song, while Metal Water Wood brings in some electronica experimentation, which sits surprisingly well with the more expected piano and string arrangements. Speaking With Trees revisits Amos’ relationship with her mother, singing about grief and how she has buried her ashes under a treehouse. “I will not let you go,” sings Amos, and it’s impossible to describe how affecting it is.
For all the personal experience described on Ocean To Ocean though, Amos very much remains an abstract songwriter. Like much of her work, this is an album which you have to put the work in to fully appreciate – it’s an album to immerse yourself in, rather than have on for background listening. The album’s final song Birthday Baby makes the concentration worthwhile – “This year, you survived through it all” is a line that most will be able to identify with, and set to a typically pretty Amos melody, it makes for the perfect send-off for the record.
Like most of Tori Amos’ recent output, Ocean To Ocean very much sits in a niche of its own. The days of Silent All These Years or songs about Cornflake Girls are long gone – but Ocean To Ocean is a moving, poignant and inspiring document of a journey most of us have had to take over the past 18 months.