Precious Thing: Tori Amos Still Has Something To Say

On paper, Tori Amos’ setlists for the Ocean To Ocean tour seem like a natural progression in her decades-long quest to tie together the personal and the political. Two years after her Resistance book launch became an early casualty of the pandemic, it’s easy to assume she’s recontextualizing her rich discography to speak to this particular moment. Rather than approach each show as an opportunity to display the breadth of her talent by digging into her trove of deep cuts and b-sides, trotting out different covers every night, revisiting juvenalia from Y Kant Tori Read or making up songs on the spot, as she has on previous outings, she has instead focused on a much slimmer section of her back pages.

Simply scan the titles of the songs she seems most drawn to these days, and a few themes surface: “Russia,” “Take To The Sky” and “Josephine” suggest the war in Ukraine is foremost on her mind; “Juárez,” “Past The Mission” and “Crucify” point to the war on women. This is really happening.

But once you stop looking so closely and let your ears take the lead, it’s a different story. At The Met in Philly, one night after she called out the Supreme Court by name in suburban D.C., Tori sounded acutely focused on more intimate matters—and proved again and again that personal narratives are no less essential than political themes.

The conflicts that informed early-career works like “Precious Things,” “Little Earthquakes,” “Take To The Sky” and “Cornflake Girl” resound more than 30 years after she introduced them, the bitter sting of schoolyard snubs, romantic upheaval, patriarchal control and girl-on-girl betrayal as potent as ever as Tori pounded her Bösendorfer. Pieces from this century, like “Bouncing Off Clouds” (from 2007’s American Doll Posse) and recent single “Spies,” locate joy in even the most ambiguous and ambivalent situations, inciting the crowd to move despite the dark undercurrents and fearsome critters that dog us all.

While she hasn’t yet played “Metal Water Wood,” Ocean To Ocean’s most mystical number, Tori took its elemental advice (“Be like water”) to heart throughout the set. Whether she was ostensibly singing about the weather (“Spring Haze,” “Northern Lad”), liquor (“Sweet Sangria,” “Devil’s Bane”) or the sea (“Ocean To Ocean,” “Selkie”/“Merman”), what she was really getting at was learning how to respond to shifting emotional undercurrents and fluid circumstances with agility and inner strength. 

As she sang in the night’s sole solo song, a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets Of Philadelphia” (the third time she’s played it in our city): “At night I could hear the blood in my veins/Just as black and whispering as the rain/On the streets of Philadelphia.” Faced with a relationship that’s cooling too quickly, mass extinction brought on by global warming or the spectre of friendships sundered by disease or political disputes, our decision to cling tightly to one another or to let go of any attachments is, ultimately, the most personal of all—and our humanity hangs in the balance.

If the performance lacked some of the spontaneity of Tori’s solo tours, she more than made up for it with fresh, funk-kissed arrangements that added depth, danceability and dynamic grooves thanks to her longtime bassist Jon Evans and new drummer Ash Soan.

Companion opened the show with lovely, empathetic songs about wanting, needing and making space for other people. Identical twins Sophia and Jo Babb have developed a warm stage presence and engaging banter that draws people in—so much so that they sold out of merch early in the tour, weeks before the late-May release of their debut, Second Day Of Spring. But it’s their gorgeous harmonies that makes repeated listening so rewarding.

—M.J. Fine; photos by Chris Sikich