On Ocean to Ocean, Tori Amos Is Queen of the Sea

A woman with long read hair wearing a black dress and cape stands on a cliffside overlooking the ocean (Tori Amos on the Ocean to Ocean album cover)

Writing about Ocean to Ocean is challenging, because until now, I’ve only written about Amos’s albums and songs that I’ve listened to (and loved) for years, sometimes decades. But thankfully, this album didn’t take very long to get into my head and into my heart. According to Amos, Ocean to Ocean is technically the second album she wrote during lockdown. She said that the first batch of songs wasn’t resonating with her anymore, so she started from scratch. Perhaps this is why in “Metal Water Wood,” which was the first song written for Ocean to Ocean, Tori sings, “Take these shattered dreams of mine, wash them away, out with the tide”—maybe this refers to the creative sacrifice she made as she started this album, and let the first album go.

The songs on Ocean to Ocean are riddled with images of water, oceans, and seas, and peopled with sea-maids, demons, and devils, as well as the mythic Poseidon, Kali, Athena, and Medusa. Some of the subject matter is clearly more personal, like “29 Years,” which describes Tori’s search for and discovery of an elusive and unnamed yet liberatory truth. Some content is collective, like the title track, “Ocean to Ocean,” in which Tori sings, “There are those who don’t give a goddamn that we’re near mass extinction.” In this song, she also admits that these devastating developments in the larger world were escalating outside of her awareness. In “Metal Water Wood,” she says, “I feel like an imposter should.” Amos’s album Native Invader similarly blended the personal and the political, but the personal admissions on Ocean to Ocean feel more stark in comparison.

Many of the songs on Ocean to Ocean feature lush instrumental introductions. Some are orchestral, like the stirring strings of “Swim To New York State”, while others feature the piano and band, like the opening track, “Addition Of Light Divided.” My personal favorites begin with atmospheric soundscapes, like “Spies”, “Devil’s Bane,” and “Birthday Baby.” These introductions evoke a mysterious, spacious, watery world; they feel expansive, but are concise enough to keep one wanting more.

In terms of production, this album is like a cross between the earthiness of Scarlet’s Walk and the darker, heavy tone of Native Invader. Ocean to Ocean also features the return of Jon Evans on bass and Matt Chamberlain on drums for the first time on a full-length album since Abnormally Attracted to Sin and Midwinter Graces were released in 2009 (however, Jon and Matt were featured on the 2020 EP Christmastide, which was a pleasant reminder of the solidity, range, and power of this musical trio).

Ocean to Ocean features Mac Aladdin on guitar (aka Mark Hawley, Amos’s husband) and Tash Hawley, Amos’s daughter, on background vocals. Mark and Tash have been featured on several albums, but on Ocean to Ocean, these familial forces are, in my mind, finally being utilized in the strongest way possible by being less central. They support Tori’s voice and the stories she’s trying to tell, but they aren’t featured as prominently, which was a refreshing change from the mother/daughter duets and excessively twangy guitars of past albums.

The other significant strength of Ocean to Ocean, especially compared with most of Amos’s 21st century releases, is its track length: there are only 11 songs. This is radically shorter than Abnormally Attracted to Sin (17 tracks), The Beekeeper (19 tracks), and American Doll Posse (23 tracks). Further, Ocean to Ocean isn’t a high concept album littered with archetypally constructed dolls, sonic gardens, or art history references. Although Tori’s fans are deeply loyal and are willing to follow her almost anywhere, for the average listener, and for anyone new to Tori’s music, these conceptual albums were probably too dense to enjoy. But over the past 10 years, Tori has demonstrated that less is more, and that the music itself is enough. Amos doesn’t need to overcompensate by making every album a double album, nor does she need to create an intricate conceptual framework within which to situate the songs. The music is enough.

In terms of the songwriting, I think Ocean to Ocean is one of the best albums Amos has released in years. For me, Tori achieved a new level of strength as a songwriter on her 2017 album Native Invader. The songs didn’t require any explanation or additional context and could stand on their own outside of the album. But Ocean to Ocean is, for the lack of a better phrase, much catchier than Native Invader. Not that it’s a pop album, per se, but the gorgeous vocal hooks on many songs catch your ear right away; they’re often quite minimal and stunning, and they remain with you long after the song has ended.

On Ocean to Ocean, Tori has managed to make an album that feels deeply personal without being confessional; she’s kept her cards hidden, but instead of eliciting a feeling of inaccessibility, it allows us to project ourselves onto the songs more easily. We can see our own secrets and our own struggles; we don’t have to worry about the personal details of Amos’s life. Even when we know, for example, that “Speaking With Trees” is partly about Amos’s deceased mother, Mary, or that “Spies” was written as a lullaby for her daughter Tash, these personal elements are not center stage. In terms of its production, instrumentation, and lyrical content, Ocean to Ocean is permeated with a sense of spaciousness, which results in a relaxing, self-reflective listening experience.

Amos continues to courageously excavate her inner world in a public forum. On Ocean to Ocean, Amos grapples with grief, loss, and personal accountability; she acknowledges her personal failings and limitations, and confronts the horror of mass extinction, the ever-changing climate, and the selfish destructiveness of corporate greed. She ends the album with a cryptic song about a birthday, perhaps the birth of a new self, a new life, or a new world. Amos accomplished all of this by becoming water, that is, by acknowledging that she was unhappy, grief stricken, and stuck, and writing from that place of stuckness; as she persisted and continued to create from the water of her tears and sweat, she gradually found her way out. By giving us Ocean to Ocean, Amos not only gifted us with a very beautiful album (which I recommend listening to very, very loudly), she also proved that we, too, can climb out of the mud. We can shed our tears, wake our limbs, pull ourselves out of lockdown paralysis, and begin to live again.

Written by Daniel Siuba


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    • Oh, that makes a lot of sense. Even still, to me feels like it’s about a new life – maybe just an unexpected one, resulting from a change we didn’t expect (or want), like a break-up. Thanks for sharing that, and for reading.

    • Oh I can definitely hear some 80s influence on this track, and on different parts of the album. I never thought to describe it as playful, but it really is – playful and bouncy, hard to sit still when I listen to it. I also found myself thinking of The Police and Phil Collins a few times while listening to this album (more so in terms of production than songwriting). Speaking of YKTR, maybe I need to write something about that album – listening to the songs in 2021, it’s actually surprising to me it bombed, since some of the songs are still so catchy (and Tori’s ‘covers’ of those songs throughout the years have been fantastic). Anyway, thanks for reading!

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