“Be like Water,” you tell me.
In “Metal Water Wood,” track eight on Tori Amos’s new album Ocean to Ocean (out today via Decca Records), we encounter a conversation Tori has, where an unnamed second party says, “I know dear, it has been a brutal year,” and then urges Tori to “be like Water.” Is this a dialogue with herself? Is it with the song? The muses? A spiritual being? Is it a conversation with her mother, who she tragically lost in 2019?
According to Amos, “Metal Water Wood” was the first song written for Ocean to Ocean – an album that came after she scrapped an entire collection of songs written pre-2020, pre-pandemic, pre-January 6th insurrection on the Capitol steps. In an interview with Celina Lloyd for MOJO Magazine, Amos states, “I didn’t want to play those songs because I couldn’t hold that energy anymore… In February, I thought I had failed, because I’d been hanging on to work that wasn’t what I felt people needed to hear.”
Ocean to Ocean, instead, is a direct response to the global events of the last year, told through a deeply personal lens. Written during and after the UK’s 3rd lockdown, the album chronicles a cycle of grief — grief from personal loss (her mother and best friend died within days of each other in 2019), grief from feeling like a failure, grief of not knowing when and how we’ll emerge from being stuck in our homes.
“We have all had moments that can knock us down,” Amos says. “This record sits with you where you are, especially if you are in a place of loss. I am fascinated when someone has gone through a tragedy, and how they work through their grief. That is where the gold is.”
What’s so striking about this album is how much these songs occupy an in-between, even liminal, space. Rather than be squarely situated in the wallows of despair or the joys of overcoming difficulties, these songs demonstrate the process of pulling through – of trying to understand your mistakes, your flaws, the losses you’ve encountered, the disconnection from yourself that grief can create. They’re about embracing these pieces of ourselves and working through them. These songs aren’t shy. They’re vehicles, above all else, of processing, struggling, and healing.
In this way, Tori Amos has created an album that resonates with the experience we’ve had on a global scale over the last 18 months. The pandemic brought people to their knees worldwide, creating a shared sense of grief and loss. Many artists have responded to this already, but what makes Ocean to Ocean so compelling is we truly see how Tori Amos is grieving and working her way through it. We’re provided a front-row seat to her struggles. It’s this openness – this candidness and rawness – that is so compelling.
“It’s about sitting in the muck together,” Amos says in the album’s press release. “I’m going to meet you in the muck.” In Ocean to Ocean, we lay witness to her grieving, while finding that our own experiences of the last 18 months mirror hers, in many ways. Eschewing the storytelling focus she’s brought to her lyrics over the last two decades, Ocean to Ocean feels wholly intentional – that Amos is showing us her world and letting us walk her path. In that way, it harkens back to the deeply personal work of the 90s that made her such a worldwide phenomenon.
Coming back to “Metal Water Wood,” the line “be like Water” is emblematic of the album’s message. Amos is saying that by becoming “like Water,” you learn how to keep moving, keep going, keep trudging through the grief and sorrow. Rather than something inert like metal or wood, water is constantly in motion, perhaps even mercurial. The theme of water continues throughout the album, using water as a metaphor for resilience, strength, and determination. As she sings in the title track, “There is a way out of this” – again re-asserting how much these songs act as vehicles to pull Amos from the depths and back into something whole again.
“Take my shattered dreams / Wash them away out with the tide”
At eleven songs, Ocean to Ocean is Amos’ lithest, most condensed album of original songs since 1999’s To Venus to Back. The album benefits from the tracklist’s economy, and for the first time in over a decade, there are no songs that stick out as filler or potential b-sides; rather, all eleven songs on Ocean to Ocean are vital parts of the album’s whole. Even on some of the less immediately engaging ones, like “Flowers Burn to Gold,” the lyrics offer some of Amos’ most striking imagery.
Ocean to Ocean brings back Matt Chamberlain on drums and Jon Evans on bass — two of Amos’ closest musical counterparts of the last two decades, and their re-entry into her musical sphere is more than welcome. They provide warmth and a vibrant energy that take these songs to new heights. The album features some of her husband Mark Hawley’s best guitar work since 2002’s Scarlet’s Walk, and her daughter Natashya (“Tash”) provides brilliant additional vocals and harmonies to the album’s first three tracks. Lastly, John Philip Shenale’s perennially wonderful string arrangements in no way disappoint. They add beautiful layers to these tracks — at some points subtle, but always balanced, and always in perfect complement to Amos’ voice and vision.
Amos’ production on this album is also some of her finest work. The sole producer on all of her albums since 1996’s Boys for Pele, this album asserts Amos’ strong hand at production, as Ocean to Ocean’s instrumentation, arrangements, and performances are all enhanced by the album’s balanced, clear production. Amos is at points experimental, which harkens back to the electronica flourish of her late 90’s work, and songs like “Spies” clearly demonstrates her masterful production acumen.
Overall, there’s an earthiness to this album’s sound that makes sense, given Amos’ musical and lyrical explorations, but it makes these songs feel rooted in something powerful — something elemental. In that way, the production offers yet another layer to the album’s story.
Ocean to Ocean is Amos’ strongest work since Scarlet’s Walk and fits in squarely with the best parts of her catalogue. Songs like “Addition of Light Divided,” “Devil’s Bane,” “29 Years,” and the previously mentioned “Metal Water Wood” see some of Amos’ best experimentation in the last few decades, and lead tracks “Speaking with Trees” and “Spies” are two of her best singles in recent memory. “Birthday Baby” could even be her audition to write the next James Bond theme song.
On Ocean to Ocean, Tori Amos captures the magic of what made her great thirty years ago, while offering new perspectives and approaches, reaffirming her as one of music’s most inventive, thought-provoking artists.