“So what if you find you like to tango alone?” Tori Amos asks in the final moments of “Birthday Baby”, the closing track of her new album Ocean to Ocean. An ode to the unexpected ways we’ve learned to both mourn and celebrate during the isolation of the past 18 months, the song vacillates between a soaring 11:00 pm musical number and something a David Lynch character might sob inconsolably to while draped over a diner jukebox.
This juxtaposition is the essence of Amos, who has been masterfully weaving the familiar, strange, tender, and unsettling for nearly 30 years. What immediately distinguishes Ocean to Ocean from Amos’ past work, though, is its timeliness, an album written and recorded during the most hopeless heights of a global pandemic, now being released into a world that’s barely begun to scratch the surface of its collective trauma.
Never one to shy away from documenting her own emotional turbulence, Amos allows Ocean to Ocean to wear its melancholy on its sleeve. It’s a record inspired and consumed by loss – loss of connection to others, loss of the self – and the process of trying to piece together both who we were before and who we will be after the storm. The result is a tight, cohesive collection of songs that expertly articulates and somehow finds meaning in the deepest recesses of despair.
On the surprisingly up-tempo “Speaking with Trees”, Amos confronts her mother’s recent death, the imagery of “hiding your ashes under the treehouse” equal parts eerie and ebullient. The wistful “Swim to New York State” is drenched in strings and percussion to the point of feeling like an immersive musical experience, Amos’ emotional repetition of “you gave and you gave, and you gave” entering the ears and burrowing its way beneath the skin. “29 Years” is a song only the mind of Tori Amos could dream up. It’s a miraculous melding of synthesizers, organs, and vocal distortion scoring a story that links Greek mythology (“No, Medusa was not always a Gorgon / No, my witch isn’t always benevolent”) to marital conflict (“Time to diffuse bombs I planted in our Bed”). It also reflects on the identity crises that come with a career spanning three decades (“These tattered bits of me / I’ve been piecing for 29 years”).
The moody-synth sensibility of “Metal Water Wood” finds Amos shedding past hang-ups. A learned fan will instantly recognize and rejoice over shades of Y Kant Tori Read, Amos’ failed 1980s endeavor, in both the song’s sonic and lyrical approach. The song is consciously choosing to “be like water” and allowing “these shattered dreams of mine / [to] wash… away with the tide.” It’s Amos at her most sensual and introspective, a composition that will undoubtedly remind listeners of that sui generis quality that drew them to her music.
The immediacy of Ocean to Ocean and its relevant themes sometimes results in a few instances where a more extended gestation period might have further enhanced the album’s strengths. “How Glass Is Made”, a somber, melodically coy reflection on marital tension “in a year of earthquakes/and those aftershocks”, is upended during its bridge by electric guitars that unnecessarily drown out one of the record’s more confessional moments.
The title track’s verses boast latter-day Joni Mitchell desert-blues vibes. Still, the chorus’ tonal shift into blunt commentary on how politics and the pandemic have divided us (“There are those who don’t give a goddamn / That we’re near mass extinction”) sounds as though it might have been borrowed from another song. The album opener “Addition of Light Divided” is initially reminiscent of Scarlet’s Walk gem “Carbon”. But as the hopeful call to resist despondence and “let the light break through” progresses, Amos’ signature frenetic piano is buried frustratingly low in the mix until it all but disappears.
Ultimately, Ocean to Ocean is a technical triumph. Amos recorded virtually from her home studio in Cornwall, England with longtime collaborators Matt Chamberlain, Jon Evans, and John Philip Shenale. It’s also a triumph of the spirit, with Amos re-contextualizing a year of losses into a record of emotional rebirth. A relaxed vulnerability permeates the album. Amos – a self-professed perfectionist very much in control of every note and breath she produces – is resigned to the open ended-ness of our current predicament, offering musings, observations, and insights, but never any hard answers. She’s comfortable in her discomfort and challenges us to be, too.