in

The Sonic Aquarium of Tori Amos

Fire & Water

Tori Amos is an elemental being. She writes about fire, water, earth, and air in all imaginable forms. When she performs live, she transmits and channels these energies through sound, light, and imagery. During some songs, she is grounded and earthy, while in others, she is fiery, even volcanic. And at other, more emotional moments, she turns herself into water.

Often, she transforms herself in response to the energetic quality of the room she is performing in and the audience she is performing for. If the room lacks vitality, she’ll dig until she taps into a water table of energy hidden deep beneath the theater. Or if there’s an overabundance of anxiety and restlessness, she’ll find a way to stabilize the energy in the room, grounding it like an electric current.

In a sense, that is how I constructed this list. It is like an energetic compensation composed of metaphorical water. It is summer, and the world is on fire. Wildfires ravage the land, destroy homes, and fill the air with noxious smoke. The fires displace people and animals, sometimes resulting in death. And the fact that the world is gradually getting warmer is an undeniably disturbing reality.

But, being the melancholic optimist that I am, I’m inclined to (begrudgingly) believe that everything will somehow work out. I even believe in foolish, naïve notions like, “Music can change the world.”

Well, it can. And it does.

Music has definitely changed my world. And I imagine if you’re reading this article, it has, in some way, changed yours.

So, bearing these musical, elemental, and climatological factors in mind, I knew I needed to go to the water.

Before We Begin

Tori Amos has an extensive catalog, and within that catalog she’s written dozens of songs about oceans, water, and the sea. She’s written about frozen water (“Winter,” “Icicle”), evaporated water (“Your Cloud,” “Spring Haze”), and even bodily fluids (looking at you, “Silent All These Years,” and “Northern Lad”).

There are other watery myths (“Selkie”) and political songs revolving around water that didn’t make the cut, as much as I love them (“Angels,” “Operation Peter Pan”).

There are many songs left out of this list that would have made wonderful additions, and if their exclusion irks or disappoints you, I humbly request your forgiveness.

And, if you’re a diehard EWF, I challenge you to make your own list of 10 Tori Amos songs based on any theme. You will spend at least a month on it and still be dissatisfied with your list.

But I suppose that’s what happens with any prolific, skillful songwriter. And that is, I think, part of why we love her. There are so many stories to hear, characters to meet, and worlds to explore.

I could go on indefinitely, so I will stop myself here.

Besides, the sun is out, and the water is fine. Let’s dive in.

“Martha’s Foolish Ginger” (Tori Amos, The Beekeeper)

A love song and a sea journey, this song gets its title from the name of the ship on which the story takes place. From Matt Chamberlain’s marching snare drum to the fluttering piano riff, movement permeates the story. We sail out of the bay, past the cliffs, and into the ocean.

The story is told in a state of reflection, and the narrator is haunted by “What ifs.” In the chorus, Tori sings:

If those harbor lights had just been a half a mile inland

Who knows what I would have done

As the narrative progresses, the storyteller is surprised by the sudden appearance of an old flame. She is shocked, speechless, and grabs onto the ship for stability. Then, they settle in and talk until the moon rises over the sea. The song is romantic, from beginning to end, and Tori’s vocal is sweet, searching, and sincere.

Personally, my favorite lyric is in the second verse:

Through the cliffs

out of the bay I went

from the starboard side

I could black my

visions and my passions

they keep me awake

(If I die anytime soon, please engrave my tombstone with these words: “A short, spirited fellow whose visions and passions kept him awake.”)

It’s also important to note that this song is referenced within the song itself. Tori sings:

We talked until the moon came up

About how life without love

isn’t worth very much

Then I played this song

So, the song that tells the story is also part of the story itself. It’s a clever, thoughtful little twist for this heartfelt, seafaring ballad.

“Siren” (Great Expectations OST)

Originally featured on the Great Expectations soundtrack, “Siren” is beloved by Tori’s fans, especially when it’s performed live. (Personally, the solo versions from the Strange Little Tour in 2001 are my favorite, but there are many notable performances of this song from the past few decades, both solo and with the band.)

A rapid, undulating piano riff streams through this song. The notes are like the choppy waves of the ocean which thunder and crash as the song progresses.

The song title references the part-women-part-bird creatures from Greek mythology, whose most famous appearance is in Homer’s Odyssey. The sirens stay near the water, often flying or alighting upon craggy rocks as they sing mellifluous, seductive music.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus instructs his men to plug their ears with beeswax to avoid being lured in by the sirens’ enchanting music, lest they crash the ship into the rocks. Odysseus, however, is strapped to the mast of his ship so he can safely listen to their song without jumping in the ocean and drowning.

The themes of “Siren” are quite similar to this moment of The Odyssey: seduction leading to potentially life-threatening destruction, except the context has changed. The story revolves around a coquettish woman who is, according to our songstress, quite dangerous.

The word “almost” is repeated several times throughout the song, which calls to mind a sort of narcissistic character structure. This is the kind of person who tempts people with fantasy, always says “maybe,” and is always just out of reach, like the sirens on the rocks. They are physically present, enchanting, and beautiful, but you can never quite touch them.

The woman in this song is a woman you can never, ever have, and to pursue her could lead to destruction, even death. (I am reminded of the moment “Song To The Siren” plays in Lost Highway)

In the song, Amos also seems to be warning someone about their capacity for self-deception. She sings, many times: “You know you’re gonna lie to you.”

The person is deceiving themselves, and they know they will repeatedly deceive themselves, as they chase the illusory fantasy of who they want this woman to be.

In the chorus, Amos unleashes a flurry of chords and a nearly unbroken stream of words:

NEVER was one for a prissy girl

coquette

Call in for an ambulance

Reach high

doesn’t mean SHE’S holy

just means

She’s got a Cellular handy

almost brave

almost pregnant

almost in love

“VANILLA”

I always wonder about the “Vanilla” line. Maybe Tori sees this Siren as being pure vanilla: a simple, ordinary flavor, which is counter to the way this character presents herself.

At the conclusion of the song, it’s unclear what happens to the characters, but in this world of fantasied love and mythical danger, deception is omnipresent.

“Seaside” (Tori Amos, Scarlet’s Hidden Treasures)

(Note: The official studio recording of this song is not available online because it was part of a bonus CD that was packaged with the live DVD, Welcome to Sunny Florida. This version is from a soundcheck before a show in Boston in 2007, which was officially released as part of the Legs and Boots series.)

“Seaside” is a poignant, somber tale of a beach-side bombing. In this story, we lose a young girl to a terrorist attack. The story is starkly clear in the lyrics:

Heard from the TV

of the latest bombing

the girls were dancing

she was coming of age

Shells fired out

flowers mowed down

innocence targeted

what god is this?

Wished that she had one more day

The song exists on the beach, that is, in the liminal space where the land meets the water. The sun’s rays are abundant, and the music is so peaceful that it’s almost easy to forget the carnage referenced in the lyrics.

When I saw Amos in Detroit in 2009, she played a special rendition of this song. Before she started it, the stage lights dimmed. She told us that the song had been specially requested and that it was for a kind of vigil. The softly lit orbs around the stage looked like dozens of candles. My eyes watered, and even though I had no idea what the vigil was for, it felt like we-the-audience (and Tori) moved into a communal space together, somewhere spiritual, even sacred. It became more than just a concert.

This is what I mean when I say that Tori Amos soothes her fans through her music. She mirrors their stories, letting them know they’ve been heard, that they matter, and that their experiences—whether joyful or tragic—are worth honoring.

“Liquid Diamonds” (Tori Amos, From the Choirgirl Hotel)

The song begins not as a slow burn, but a slow drip. It fades in from the distance and slowly envelops the listener. This is a “headphones recommended” song, as the effects on Amos’ voice tell a story of their own.

In the verses, the vocal effect oscillates back and forth. First, it sounds as if her voice is coated in static, like her mouth has been taped shut; then, her voice rings out, wet with reverb. As she transitions into the section, “I guess I’m an underwater thing,” the delay effect transforms her voice into a series of ocean waves.

Unlike the previous songs, this story takes place in an underwater world. The rules here are not clear, nor are the boundaries defined. The rhythmic pulse of the drums is constant, but the other instruments move at their own pace and fluctuate throughout the song.

In the lyrics, there are instructions, directions, and offerings. There are underwater things, shells, molasses, and secrets.

It gives me the impression of an undersea journey and an inner-sea journey, an introverted excursion into a psyche made of water, an underwater labyrinth littered with half-buried jewels, rotted wooden ships, and collective memories. It’s a place of liquid, of sea secrets, of something we thought we’d forgotten that is leaking from its container and bubbling to the surface.

This song ends as it began: fading out, just as it faded in. The story might be over, but the music keeps moving, ticking in the distance like a ghostly clock.

“Dolphin Song” (Tori Amos, A Piano: The Collection)

A few summers ago, a friend and I were walking along a beach in northern Santa Barbara. It was July. The setting sun turned the water a deep shade of indigo. Suddenly, my friend pointed out to sea and yelled, “Dolphins!”

At first, I couldn’t see anything, but then a pair of shiny grey creatures burst through the waves. They curved through the air, flipped, and splashed back into the ocean. They kept up this game for several minutes, moving up and down the beach. Then, they rejoined a pod of several other dolphins and swam out to sea.

This same playful, bouncy energy is captured in Amos’ “Dolphin Song,” a previously unreleased  B-side featured on the extensive 5-disc box set, A Piano: The Collection.

In this story, we meet Matthew, and the narrator he calls Melusine. Melusine is a reference to another kind of water spirit, like a mermaid, except she is usually found in fresh water and sometimes in holy wells.

This song is upbeat, and the staccato, bubbly bass line is notably present, particularly during the “smooth like Dolphin” section. Jon Evans is a master bassist, and it’s always a treat whenever he gets to shine in Tori’s music.

The chorus of this song is heartfelt and poignant, which creates a nice counterbalance to the drum-heavy verses and pulsating prechoruses. In the chorus, Tori sings:

Now that know,

I know the lengths that you’d go

to chase the roughest tide

that’s right behind me

yes I know, I know the lengths that you’d go

to bring the roughest tide in

smooth like dolphins

Amos’ family life is also referenced here, as she is the “daughter of a preacher man.” It also seems to reference Natasha, her daughter, and her husband, in the later verse:

I sought shelter in our child’s room

She and me against the world,

safe in our cocoon

You raced a giant roller-skate

And said “the three of us must leave this place

Song lines will guide our way”

It’s unclear where the trio is going, but as is always the case with Tori, the songs will guide the way.

“Bats” (Tori Amos, Native Invader)

In “Bats,” we are fully immersed in the realm of water spirits, the “Undine of the Sea.” According to The Book of Faeries, undines (also known as water spirits or water faeries) “inhabit the oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, and all other water places of the world.” [1] According to the author, Francis Melville, undines are “the most empathetic of the elemental beings” because they share the psychic, intuitive, connecting, and magnetic qualities of water.

The song also refers to The Kindly Ones, also known as the Erinyes (or the Furies). Amos, being a longtime friend of author Neil Gaiman, is probably also referring to The Sandman graphic novel of the same name. The Kindly Ones sometimes appear as three sisters, and they are mostly known for their vengeance.

In the story of this song, the ancient sea maids made a deal with humanity:

Warning “the most precious thing

That we’ll fight to save

The fate of our waves

With her blue satin crashing”

The warning in this song refers to the vengeance that will come if we don’t hold up our end of this ancient bargain. Perhaps we are already witnessing the global effects of our betrayal.

The structure of this song is cyclical, perhaps mirroring the cycles of nature and the movements of ocean currents. It also features a Yamaha CP series keyboard, which adds a watery quality to the production, much more than could be achieved with an acoustic piano.

It seems as if the song could go on forever, just like the ocean, but its pace slows, somewhat abruptly. The music disassembles itself and begins to sink, as if thrown out to sea.

 “Oysters”(Tori Amos, Unrepentant Geraldines)

“Oysters” opens with the tolling of gentle bells, like drops of rain falling on the sand.

I imagine the storyteller of this song is sitting around a bonfire with friends, near the ocean. At first, she feels fine—not great, just okay. Then, as the night grows colder and the sky darkens, she begins to recognize that something is stirring within her.

Against her will, unbidden, things begin to surface. The feeling begins as a tiny trickling stream that grows into a creak, gains momentum, and cascades into a river.

The singer in this song is caught in a web of tension, torn between past, present, and future. She is unsure where to turn, so she evaluates her life and tries to piece it together:

and there are forces of conflict

taking portions of my mind

in whose realm laced with trickery

the fragments I must find

and I can almost outrun you

and those stalking memories

did I somehow become you

without realizing

Amos’ performance is truly stunning, from beginning to end (especially the end). For me, the moment toward the end of the song where she sings “in the sand” for the last time and holds the note over the descending piano progression is possibility the most beautiful moment on the entire record.

At its core, “Oysters” is about truthfully reflecting on your life without being judgmental, cynical, or ashamed. We find a home in ourselves through years of gentle, persistent introspection, excavating psychological layers, turning oysters in the sand, until one day, we discover a shimmering pearl in the palm of our hand.

“Pandora’s Aquarium” (Tori Amos, From the Choirgirl Hotel)

In “Pandora’s Aquarium,” we dive into the waters of mythic grief. This song begins at the bottom of a sonic ocean. The first chords drift upward like bubbles as Amos sings:

Pandora

Pandora’s Aquarium

she dives for shells

with her nautical nuns

and thoughts you thought

you’d never tell

Her voice is elusive, like she knows something we don’t. Or maybe she’s just singing to us from a place we’ve never been.

Pandora is here, and Persephone (and perhaps Demeter watches from above.)

Like “Liquid Diamonds,” this song exists in an imaginal realm, in another reality, somewhere fluid, outside of time.

“Tear in Your Hand” (Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes)

From the 1992 album Little Earthquakes, this song describes a relationship that’s just come to an end. Water appears in the form of a tear as well as the “black of the blackest ocean.” These two images of water, one minuscule and one oceanic, are juxtaposed. Perhaps an ocean of feeling is running through the heartbroken narrator, but all that comes out of her is a single tear, plopped onto the hand of her former lover.

It features another nod to Neil Gaiman and The Sandman graphic novels:

if you need me me and neil’ll be

hangin’ out with the DREAM KING

Neil said hi, by the way

This song also features one of my favorite bridges (especially during live performances):

maybe I ain’t used to | I ain’t

maybes | used to

smashing in a cold room | crying

cutting my hands up | you still

every time I touch you | sometimes

maybe | use me

maybe it’s time

to wave goodbye now

time to wave goodbye now

The narrator of this story also offers an interesting thought her ex-lover, who is leaving her for someone else. She sings: “There’re pieces of me you’ve never seen, maybe she’s just pieces of me you’ve never seen.”

On the one hand, it is a psychological insight, because we all share many of the same capacities, talents, fears, and potentials. But on the other hand, it’s just another bargain, as if she’s saying,  “Maybe if I can be more like her, this doesn’t have to end.”

But it does end. She says it herself: “Maybe it’s time to wave goodbye, now.”

The song concludes with the same cyclical chord progression that started it. Except maybe we hear it differently this time now that we’ve heard the whole story.

(My favorite description of this song is from Tori herself, penned for the Little Earthquakes songbook. Click the link and scroll down to Tori Quotes.)

“Merman” (Tori Amos, A Piano: The Collection)

“Merman” was initially inspired by Tori’s husband, Mark Hawley, but during the Plugged ’98 tour, she began dedicating it to the memory of Matthew Shepherd.

In this song, Amos tells the story of a merman who is freed from the clutches of wicked priests who sought to steal his voice.

The arrangement is simple: just Tori’s voice, the piano, and soft backing vocals.

The lyrics are gentle and childlike:

Go to bed

the priests are dead

Now no one can call you bad

Go to bed

the priests are dead

Finally you’re in peppermint land

Whether we’re whisked off to peppermint land or the dreamy lands of ice, this song takes us to a playful, peaceful world. A place we are safe enough to relax, rest, and sleep.

“Merman” is one of Tori’s sweetest lullabies. It’s a story of freedom and respite, inspired by someone as expansive and as unfettered as the sea.


References

[1] Melville, Francis. The Book of Faeries: A Guide to the World of Elves, Pixies, Goblins, and other Magic Spirits. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., 2002, p. 18.

Written by Daniel Siuba

15 Comments

Leave a Reply
  1. I’m really happy you added both Bats and Oysters, which are favorites of mine. The melody of Oysters takes me to another world, and Bats has become eerily prophetic. Although there’s no explicit link between bats and COVID19, lots of novel viral infections come from animal reservoirs, including bats. And then I think about the consequences of humankind encroaching upon nature and failing to be good stewards.

    • Emmanuel,

      Thanks for reading, and for your comment!

      When I was making this list, I sort of waffled on whether or not to include “Bats” because I was having a tricky time approaching it. But it wouldn’t go away. Then I really sat down with it, re-read the lyrics, and listened again, and I had the same feeling: that eerie way in which Tori’s music is relevant (and, as you said, prophetic), both personally and collectively. It felt important to include it, considering our present circumstances.

      And I also like re-framing the whole climate situation in terms of a deal we made with nature, and that we simply haven’t held up our end of the bargain – and that there are, and should be, consequences for that. To me, it also makes the ending even more elusive: “Keep breathing, girl.” (I really wonder, who is she talking to? Or is it the Undine speaking to the singer? We’ll probably never know, and that’s what keeps me coming back.)

      Thanks again!

      • Will you be writing further analyses in the future centered around Tori’s songwriting and other elements? Earth songs, air songs, etc?

        • That’s a good question. I can say with certainty that there will be more Tori-related articles, but I’m not sure if they’ll be elemental in nature. It’s a good idea though, I actually hadn’t thought to do more! I could definitely see fire, earth, or air. Then of course, there’s the whole matter of space. The cosmic route really appeals to me. . .a lot to think about here!

          • Elemental or not, any and all Tori analyses are welcome. Her music is the gift that keeps on giving!

  2. Hey Daniel!
    This is amazing! I made it to Seaside and will have to stop for the night. That was my request. I told the story of how it happened on Undented, which is still live. Link: http://undented.com/tour/1721/detroit-mi
    There are still some news stories up on the shooting of a gay youth center in Israel that took the lives of Nir Katz, 26, and Liz Trobishi 17.

    • Hi Erin,

      Wow, thank for your sharing that with me. A very sad event, but I’m glad to know the context now. The performance has taken on a whole new meaning for me.
      Hope you are well, and thanks for reading!

  3. Great list! Very well written and you clearly know the songs.

    With Pandora’s Aquarium I think “the Lord of the Flies was diagnosed as sound” is important too, the idea of Satan being considered sane and the impact that might have.

    • Thanks, Erin. I do love that line, although I didn’t imagine she was referring to Satan, necessarily. Satan being sane reminds me more of Father Lucifer (‘you always looked so sane’). But as is usually the case with Tori, there are many ways to read a song – or a line! : )
      Thank you for reading!

  4. Tori’s work lends itself really well to elemental description, something she made more obvious on American Doll Posse. Choirgirl as an album is very watery and I wish I liked it more than I do! I think Silent All These Years, Agent Orange, Marys of the Sea and Ophelia could easily fit on this list too. I love your idea of being able to write about each physical state of water, because there is definitely no shortage of ice and clouds in her work either!
    Great article, thank you.

    • Very astute, Pandora! Agent Orange was actually on this list, but I had to limit it to 10 songs. Part of me wanted to cheat and have a few extra songs (as “Encores”) but I decided to play by the rules. I also wanted to throw ‘Cooling’ on here, and as you suggested, ‘Silent All these Years.’

      But I already warned my editor here, there WILL be more than one Tori Top Ten list. : )

      Thanks for reading!

      P.S. Marys of the Sea wasn’t quite right for this list, but I am almost certain she will be getting an article all to herself.

  5. Incredible piece. Thank you from a fellow long – time EWF. I enjoyed your perspectives on these songs and the group of 10 diverse pieces you formed into a creative and thoughtful collection. Also appreciate your personal stories about Tori and the songs, and the particular versions of some of the songs like Siren.
    I do not EVER write comments to articles but I had to this time!

    • Thanks so much, Amy! I really appreciate that.

      And it’s also amazing to me – I rarely receive comments on articles, but I write one piece about Tori and all the EWF’s show up to support it and gift me with the most comments I’ve ever received!

      Definitely not the last time I will write a piece about Tori : )

      Thanks again!

  6. What a beautifully written piece. It was wonderful reading such a thoughtful perspective on the girls – I dove back into quite a few that haven’t been my in rotation for quite some time – and now through different lens.

    Very much looking forward to your next piece!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) standing at the center of a group of characters looking forward with a black background

What If…? S1E2: “What if T’Challa Became a Star Lord?”— A Love Letter to Chadwick Boseman

Victor lies on top of Josh on the floor of their apartment

What’s the Buzz: Mr. Corman, The Suicide Squad, and Princess Mononoke