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Tori Amos
Ocean to Ocean Ed Power , November 2nd, 2021 09:03

On her sixteenth studio album, Tori Amos still has plenty to say, finds Ed Power

Tori Amos was part of a generation of female artists who, in the early 1990s, plunged a dagger into the heart of the patriarchy. Tumultuous and emotionally gory, she played piano as though banishing demons. Her lyrics were meanwhile a visceral blend of Erica Jong and Emily Brontë. “Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon, how’s that thought for you” she crooned on ‘Silent All These Years’, one of the best songs ever written about a life made small by the prejudices of the people closest to you.

Three decades later and unlike peers such as Björk and PJ Harvey – all three famously graced the cover of Q magazine together – Amos has kept faith, more or less, with her original aesthetic. There have been no jolting reinventions or attempts to radically redefine her sound. It’s still Tori, a Bösendorfer piano, and lyrics by turns as clear as spring water and as gnarled and jagged as a rusted knife.

But does she have anything new to say? Or has she, as is often the case with musicians deep into their careers, became mired in the permafrost of old glories? On Ocean to Ocean, Amos answers that question thrillingly and affirmatively. Recorded through last winter and into early summer, and drawing on both the anguish she experienced over the death in 2019 of her mother and on her lockdown malaise, it’s as stark an LP as you will hear this year. Yet it is also beautiful and eerie, a project with its bruises and its scars on full display.

Amos has spoken of her music coming to her through “muses”. And throughout Ocean to Ocean there is an unnerving feeling of elemental and perhaps not altogether benign forces at work. The imagery Amos and her spirits conjure is in places stark and haunting. ‘Speaking With Trees’ sees Amos walking the roads around her home in costal Cornwall, looking to nature to make sense of the passing of her mother (grief is something with which Amos is familiar, having lost her brother to a road accident in 2004).

The song is scorched with pain. And there is no hint of reassurance as she offers up her sorrows to nature. “You only know when you know this,” she cries. She is singing, in the first instance, about her mother, who remained a close confidante all the way to the end. However, the sentiments could be applied, too, to the quiet panic many of us suffered through lockdown: you only know what the end of the world feels like when you’re actually living through it.

Amos’s albums have have long had an unrelenting quality. Her 1996 landmark, Boys For Pele, for instance, started deep in the bayou of her spiritual traumas – of which she had many, courtesy of a strict Methodist upbringing – and then plunged down and down into a swamp of despair and defiance. But even by those standards Ocean to Ocean is strikingly unflinching. ‘Swim To New York State’ has Amos dreaming of crossing the Atlantic and joining her niece, who has gone through the generational purgatory of having her youth put on hold through the pandemic. And on ‘Metal Water Wood’ she takes the Bruce Lee invocation to “be like water” – that is, be adaptable and enduring – and seeks to apply it to her Cornwall lockdown, where her world seemed to shrink with each new morning.

One misleading aspect of the record is that Amos has sheathed the music in a relatively conventional soft rock overlay. Her piano generally avoids the fire and brimstone ferocity of her early catalogue. And the sound is filled out by lounge-rock guitar (from husband Mark Hawley), understated bass by Jon Evans, and shuffling drums from Matt Chamberlain.

Yet these MOR components are a distraction from the true essence of the record. The cover of Ocean to Ocean finds Amos high on a cliff staring out to sea. All around glint sharp, ancient rocks. The chilling inference is that once you slip and tumble down a cliff-face – physically or emotionally – it’s often hard to stop. This is a gauzy and sometimes deceptively accessible album about falling all the way to the bottom and wondering if there’s any way back.