A good cry and an introspective look at resilience.
I’m a firm believer that a few musicians sometimes tune into the underground sensory system of the world and can create music two types of music. They create the music we want to hear, often reactionary, rousing and aggressively holding onto an emotion. They can also create the music we didn’t know we needed to hear too. This is where I feel “Ocean to Ocean” comes into full force. This isn’t the album I’d have signed up for out of the gate but over the months since its release, it has become an absolute guiding light of hope, wisdom and exploration of grief.
Tori Amos didn’t think this was the album she wanted either. She was writing something else entirely when “Ocean to Ocean” then came to her. Tori cited the loss of her mother, touring live music (she is always on the road) and general lockdown fatigue as being a triple threat that caused her to abandon her project and work on the album that became. It sounds like the previous work was perhaps more politically charged whereas this work is far more personal and singular, whilst being on a global scale very relatable. It’s about loss and coping.
Each song on the album places the piano wielding songstress into different frames and thought processes on grief and survival instinct. It could be the percussive rumbles of the fantastic “Speaking of Trees”, where the piano chords and drums switch from pensive back and forth corridor walks of notes as if your mind is spiralling out of control – to uplifting moments of clarity about embracing and not burying those who have passed away. The juxtaposition of time ticking numbness and euphoria in sadness sets up the album perfectly for everything that it stands for. Grief has its absolute hellish moments but there are moments of beauty too. The sumptuous symphonia of “Addition of Light Divided” which opens the album is a great example of that. Tori speaks of being in a “Tourmaline dream” where protection and grounding are represented. The songs’ beautiful strings and complex piano melodies act as a magical spell and a self promise to break the chain of sadness.
Sadness is felt though. “Flowers Burn To Gold” is one of the simplest songs Tori Amos has penned and feels purposefully dry. Here, she speaks of seeing her mother everywhere around her. “Swim to new York State” is about being separated from your loved ones as an extra layer on top of the grief. It’s also an ode to a place called home and grieving the loss of that too. The warmth of the bass and strings and Beatles like production really sells the warmth of home here too. Expanding beyond personal loss we have the title track which mourns the loss of our planet in some ways. It is a climate-driven piece and aims squarely at those placing profits before sustainability. Its dusty, smoky guitars and rusted percussion sell the idea of how life is being sucked out of our planet too. Politics and religion don’t get a free pass, it’s Tori Amos after all. “Devil’s Bane” is the most overtly placed track to cover these in a Southern flair with organs and daughter Tash providing some stellar backing vocals over the acoustic guitar twangs.
Two things, in particular, make this album really stand out for me. Firstly, it’s the overarching band effort of the album. This is the most complex and sonically interesting Tori Amos has recorded since Night of Hunters. Matt Chamberlain’s drums are especially superb as he provides trips, spills, trills and definitely thrills with all kinds of beats. Jon Evans also gets plenty of time to shine on bass too. On the fantastically barmy “Spies”, the duo along with Mark Hawley on guitar sound like they are having a tour de force jamming session. So much experimentation, style swaps and fun is had in those six minutes. The track doesn’t sit still. It feels like a band of brothers coming to help a girl out so she can lead the way to the exit for all of us. Indeed, I feel this way about the whole album because if I were to be critical, this is Amos’ least dynamic vocal performance. The piano is on fire throughout most of the album and it is hidden in the mix perhaps more than it should be at times. This feels like a group of friends coming to help their sister but that’s a very personal take on things. I’m delighted that gone is the “oooOOOooo” ending for practically 90% of songs we’ve had since Scarlet’s Walk. Songs start and end with different structures and it makes a big difference. I hope this is a springboard for deeper sonic exploration in the future.
The second thing that really connected with me fall to the tracks “Birthday Baby” and “Metal Water Wood”. These tracks both speak of key moments in grief and acceptance but in different ways. “Birthday Baby” congratulates you for making it through another year. Older, wiser and a bit battered and bruised maybe, but you’re still here. It also feels paired to a track from her 2009 album ‘Abnormally Attracted to Sin’ called “Lady in Blue”. In both songs, Tori says knows she must tango alone or play too – to me, they are the same thing. It is about participating in life again and not withdrawing altogether.
The world can throw a lot at you, as referenced in the career reflection piece “29 Years” (which has me wondering quite how Tori feels about some of her work now) and “How Glass Is Made”. Staying angry at the world and letting everything tear you down can be all-consuming. Spend five minutes of Twitter, you’ll have enough hot air to render all kettles useless for the day. However, instead of making fire, “Metal Water Wood” asks us to bend and flow like water instead. For an artist who calls herself a little arsonist, this 180-degree spin is what took her down the path of “Ocean to Ocean” as an album and the track is just stunning. From its pounding drum loops to cascading electronic trickles to the catchy vocal riffs – it is a track that I fall deeper and deeper into like a trance. It is the perfect example of how an artist can learn something new herself (Bruce Lee films apparently) and then impart the knowledge to give the listener a new viewpoint.
A personal perspective
All of this came together with perfect timing for me. I’d lost some friends during the pandemic and I’ve spent most of 2021 battling with assumed long covid. I’ve mourned friends lost and my own health and wellbeing diminished. Those of you who follow this website know I usually publish 10 posts a week. That hasn’t happened consistently over the last two months. I’ll explain why as it is relevant to this album review.
Both my parents are undergoing a lot of medical issues and procedures. It has been stressful with this running alongside a pandemic and the wild sways in my health from the assumed long covid (getting there slowly though). My mum will need big surgery. My dad was diagnosed with cancer. We’ve caught the cancer quite early but all the options of treatment are very high risk due to underlying health issues caused in part by malpractice from a doctor several years ago. Do you go for an operation where you’ve been told there’s more chance you don’t wake up rather than you do? If you don’t, aren’t you committing yourself to a death sentence anyway – but is it better to enjoy the time as a bonus? What if you’ve already disconnected from the world and thought maybe I don’t have anything to stick around for as I’ve had a good life anyway? These are the kind of conversations we’ve been having under time pressure and time is life. Then the Omicron variant came along and swiped it all away from us anyway with all treatments placed on hold until further notice. Knowing it was this that saw a close friend die of her cancer journey in 2020 because access to what kept her going was removed, you can see how all of this ties together.
For me, “Ocean to Ocean” has become part of a trilogy of albums that I have been listening to an awful lot to deal with the layers of grief, powerlessness, fear and dignity. “Ocean to Ocean” is one, “Dead Club” by Tunng and “Denis Was a Bird” by Tom Rosenthal are the other two. All three tackle death of a parent, a loved one, parts of yourself – in different ways. There are moments of sadness, levity, insight, grace, clarity and learning found in every song of all three albums. For me, “Ocean to Ocean” has been about learning to cope and flow like water when all I want to do is burn everything to the ground as our Governments and corporations do daily. The album is helping me to not set fire to myself too and burn out in the face of adversity. It is a work in progress.
If you’d have told me mid-2021 that Tori Amos was releasing a new album after the 18 months we’d just had, I’d have expected fire. Amos understood that the stove didn’t need stoking anymore, herself included. Instead, we needed to turn down the heat and let things flow out. It’s the album I didn’t know I needed and that’s why it is my album of the year. Thank you, Tori.
Recommended track: Metal Water Wood
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