Monday, November 15, 2021

Tori Amos Chooses Cornwall over Cornflakes in New Home-produced Album

'Ocean To Ocean’ is the fascinatingly personal, vulnerable, and musically self-assured sixteenth studio album from the paradoxical force of nature Tori Amos.

Fans can look forward to the same simultaneously fragile and powerful voice, the same high-intensity classically informed rock piano riffs, and the same intriguing lyric setting that equally mystified and delighted the masses on past global megahits such as ‘Cornflake Girl’ and ‘Winter’.

This album sounds like Sting producing Kate Bush singing Peter Gabriel lyrics over Crowded House chords. The production is controlled and glossy, with jazzy harmonic suspensions and occasional world music timbres, as well as atmospheric sound design elements varying from the indistinct foreboding creaks and wails of windswept places to the deliberate release of pressure from the piano pedals at the end of a couple of songs.

From the first track, ‘Addition Of Light Divided’, the listener is plunged into the familiar soundscape of heavy-hitting singer-songwriter-auteurs. This song would not be out of place on the late Gabriel-era Genesis album ‘The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway’ – particularly the chorus melody and the vocal delivery throughout. Tori turns the parochial prog Englishness up to 11 in the mid-album track, ‘Spies’, calling back to the unsettlingly childlike lyrics of ‘Nursery Cryme’ with its layered, quintessentially English puns, sociolinguistic variation, unusual place names and nursery rhyme references (“Mrs Crabby Apple won’t get custard, won’t get crumble”). 

‘Speaking With Trees’ is the lead single from the album, driven by a sparkly minor piano riff, and leaning into childhood imagery of treehouses and grief overgrown by trees. Musically and lyrically (“I’ve been hiding your ashes / Under the tree house”), this is a brightly sombre song that could have been written by Amy Lee.

‘Devil’s Bane’ develops the themes of death and loss through a story of abuse and survival hung on a backbone of corrupting religion: “Shot of tequila / Wash me clean / From his sermons and conspiracies / Yes, He was good / At turning me against me”. The third verse changes up the harmonic progression into a strong echo of critically acclaimed the mid-2000s revival of Crowded House – look out for this in ‘Spies’ as well, where we even get a snatch of French lyrics thrown in, à la ‘Pour Le Monde’. The antipodean chordal parallels continue into ‘Swim To New York State’, which name-checks the “Cornish coast of England” as the other end of the song’s very ambitious sequence of swimming lengths – especially for this time of year.

The title track, ‘Ocean To Ocean’ is a beguiling anti-capitalist eco-protest song in a minor bluesy pop skiffle groove. “There are those who don’t give a goddamn / That we’re near a mass extinction”, begins the rousing but musically low-key chorus, which will get the multi-generational crowds singing along righteously in next year’s European tour.

‘Flowers Burn To Gold’ could be part two of ‘Winter’; a slow, sweet meditation on a departed figure. Tori has spoken about both this track and 'Speaking With Trees' as dealing with her mother's death. ‘Metal Water Wood’ seems to be about elemental communion and reinvention: “Take these shattered dreams / Wash them away out with the tide”, with a chorus whose sound design pops out from the rest of the song and faintly resembles ‘Games Without Frontiers’. ‘29 Years’ uses Greek mythological imagery to explore related themes of loss, separation and regret.

‘How Glass Is Made’ comes in with a startling intensity; the first two suspended chords hang heavily as we’re pulled by the hand into a rhythmically and harmonically strange trip in the planes of Kate Bush, Björk and Morrissey. “Do you know / How glass is made?” asks the narrator before hitting us with a final deeply poignant twist: “I learned too late”. OK, now back to the start to figure out what it all means!

The final song on the album, ‘Birthday Baby’ has elements of Bowie and Leonard Cohen. It’s grandiose and vulnerable and mercurial, rather like the whole album. And lyrically painful, playful, mysterious and oblique. ‘Ocean To Ocean’ has a cosmic feel. It seems to reference the most inventive giants of song writing – a category of which Tori is a formidable member in her own right – and present it back to the world through a personal and universal prism.

This album comes from a lockdown of psychological processing, and we can feel the weight of that work in the music and vocal delivery. The slantness of the lyrics will keep obsessive fans fascinated throughout Tori's 2022 tour and beyond. Newcomers to Tori's music will be drawn in by the rhythmic and harmonic textures of this album – and they will stay for its striking vulnerability and emotional intensity.


John Weston
Image: ‘Ocean To Ocean’ Official Album Cover


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