The Complicatist : Fiona Apple, appreciated

True, blue, and the art of getting over it

by Gordon Campbell

Years ago, Andy Warhol wrote that his way of dealing with his problems was to talk about them into a tape recorder – after which, he figured, he didn’t have a problem anymore, he just had a tape. That’s the kind of exorcism that Fiona Apple has become really, really good at – and on her stark new album (the tracks consist almost entirely of her voice/piano plus percussion) she sings as well as anyone ever has done about wilful misunderstandings and recriminations and the logic of infidelity…., and all the other aspects of our flights to, and from, intimacy.

Strange that Fiona Apple should turn out to be the lasting voice-of-her generation figure from the 1990s. Yet only P.J. Harvey comes close to the level that Apple is operating on these days. At the outset, Apple had copped a lot of criticism over the video for what is still her biggest pop hit, “Criminal.” This stern tone of disapproval pretty typical:

it would be a difficult to make a case for Apple’s sexually-charged child abuse fantasies (as seen in her “Criminal” video) as a depiction of a positive role model for adolescent girls. ….

The ethics of mandatory role modelling aside, it hardly seemed to matter what she said she had in mind – which included her belief that if anyone was going to exploit her it might as well be herself, and that “Criminal” was really a song about how empty victory can feel, when bought via the currency of sex (“Its a sad sad world/ When a girl will break a boy / Just because she can.”) Back then, the repentance being sought in “Criminal” included her own oft-told “sin” of being raped at the age of 12 and this history fed into the song’s disturbing mixture of sexual tease and self-loathing. In its wake, Apple was being told by all and sundry to buck up, mend her ways and do it for the sisters before it was too late:

The question now is whether Apple will mature and use the career momentum supplied by “Criminal” to push for more positive images of herself and women in general in her future videos. If Apple continues to play on her video sex appeal to sell her music than she is likely doomed to a short and turbulent career.

Well, how wrong that verdict turned out to be. In this column, I’m not going to try and provide an overview of her career. The tracks I’ve selected happen to be ones I like a lot and – hopefully – they convey something of her candour and skills as a writer and singer. Not since Joni Mitchell has there been an artist as musically/lyrically accomplished and as true to the slippery, ambivalent way that we feel – by the hour, day, or phase of the moon – about ourselves, and the main people in our lives. As she explained in a typically frank interview earlier this year with the New York Times, she’s no longer the self-righteous victim she used to be:

“A lot of my earlier songs are blaming other people and never thinking that I ever did anything wrong, because I was always trying to be completely loyal and honest and pure,” she said. “It’s so nice to come to a place where you can see how you absolutely enabled all these things to happen. It makes you stop being angry at people. It makes you start being more empathetic.”

Some of the motivation for this new found empathy though, evidently springs from reading she’s been doing lately about the neural pathways in the brain:

“What fires together wires together. If you keep on having these negative thoughts or being angry all the time, then that area of your brain is going to get stronger,” she said. So she’s trying to feel everything from a different angle. “Even when now there have been times that I’ve just felt so, so bad,” she said, “I can take myself out of it for a moment and go: ‘You watch, you’ve felt this way before, you’re going to feel great again. And then you’re going to feel terrible again, and then you’re going to feel great again.’

In other words, the same old shit keeps on recurring, But at least the fans are there for her, more dependably perhaps than any lover:

“I was told so many times when I was a kid, ‘I can’t be friends with you, you’re too intense, you’re too sad all the time.’ I really thought that when I made the first album that everyone would understand me, all the people who weren’t my friends would become my friends. It didn’t turn out that way then, but now I do feel like those people are my friends. And so when they say, ‘I love you,’ I don’t care who they are. I love them back.”

She smiled. “If I have one success in my relationship history it’s with the people who listen to my music,” she said. “I think that they’ll be there with me forever, and I’ll be there with them forever. And I’m totally satisfied with that.”

1.“Parting Gift”

To start with, here’s a track from her 2005 album, Extraordinary Machine. It begins with an amusing image of masculine devotion :

I opened my eyes
While you were kissing me once more than once
And you looked as sincere as a dog
Just as sincere as a dog does,
When it’s the food on your lips with which it’s in love

And on she goes, with the rhythms of each phrase pushing the melody out in circles as she pounds the inevitability of relationship meltdown into the piano on her way to the chorus : “The signs said ‘Stop’ – but we went on whole-hearted/It ended bad, but I love what we started….” As she ends the song, the applause startles her eyes wide open, as if she suddenly remembers there’s an audience out there.

2.“Werewolf” The next two songs are from the latest album The Idler Wheel etc, but in versions performed only six weeks ago during the recent heatwave, at a concert in Ithaca., New York. Her intensity can disguise that she can be as graveyard funny as Leonard Cohen, about the serious things. “Werewolf” is a good example from the ‘liken/lycan’ wordplays to this summation of the push pull dynamic inherent in many breakup situations :
But we can still support each other/all we gotta do’s avoid each other
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key
Unlike a lot of singer/songwriters who lay their lyrics across the melody like a plank, Apple manages to make her words uncoil in surprising ways…. You should maybe get the studio version of “”Werewolf” for the full impact, but this live version shows how compelling she can be in live performance. Sing along if you can:

But you were such a super guy ’til the second you get a whiff of me
We are like a wishing well and a bolt of electricity
But we can still support each other, all we gotta do’s avoid each other
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key
Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key
The lava of the volcano shot up hot from under the sea
One thing leads to another and you made an island of me
And I could liken you to a chemical the way you made me compound a compound
But I’m a chemical, too, inevitable you and me would mix
And I could liken you to a lot of things but I always come around
Cause in the end I’m a sensible girl, I know the fiction of the fix….

3. “Anything We Want.” If forced to pick a favourite track off the new album, “ Anything We Want“ would have to be it. The melody has a swaying, walk-across-the-rooftops in Spanish Harlem feel to it – reminiscent say, of Laura Nyro or Mink De Ville :

My cheeks were reflecting the longest wavelength
My fan was folded up and grazin’ my forehead
And I kept touching my neck to guide your eye to where I wanted
You to kiss when we find some time alone
My scars were reflecting the mist in your headlights
I looked like a neon zebra shakin’ rain off of stripes
And the rivulets had you riveted to the places that I wanted you to
Kiss me when we find some time alone

And then we can do anything we want….

We started out sippin’ the water
And now we try to swallow the wave
And we try not to let those bastards get us down….

This video takes about 35 seconds or more to get going, but stick with it.

4. “Get Him Back “ Another track from Extraordinary Machine. “Get Him Back” is a tough girl song about romantic disappointment and bad contenders, most of whom are given short shrift :

The next one up a contemptible snob
He lived to put things in their place
He did a commendable job
He put himself so low
He can hardly even look me in the face

Wait til I get him back
He won’t have a back to scratch
Yeah, keep turning that chin
And you will see my face
As I figure how to kill what I cannot catch

The song finally comes down to the task of living with diminished expectations. Or to an acceptance of being grateful for being known, even just a little bit :

But the last one I had who was getting my hopes up
I might have been a little fast to dismiss
I think he let me down when he didn’t disappoint me
He didn’t always guess right but he usually got my drift

4. “Paper Bag” “ I Want You” Here’s one from the 1999 When The Pawn etc album and her “ How crazy am I” period…This is a singing tour de force, as the lyric toys with the old wishing on a star tradition:
I was staring at the sky, just looking for a star
To pray on, or wish on, or something like that
I was having a sweet fix of a daydream of a boy….
But then the dove of hope began it’s downward slope
And I believed for a moment that my chances
Were approaching to be grabbed
But as it came down near, so did a weary tear
I thought it was a bird, but it was just a paper bag
-Hunger hurts, and I want him so bad, oh it kills
’cause I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up
I got to fold ’cause these hands are too shaky to hold
Hunger hurts, but starving works, when it costs too much to love…

5. “I Want You” “I Walk a Little Faster”
I could have maybe done a whole column on the cover versions. Elsewhere on You Tube you can find Apple covering “Use Me’ by Bill Withers, “Angel” by Jimi Hendrix and Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” among others – not always successfully, but in her own fashion. Here she is playing the muse to Elvis Costello on a version of his song “ I Want You.” The song is a doleful piece of High Cheese, but she infuses it with more genuine emotion than it deserves. Even better is her ambitious version of “I Walk a Little Faster” from a 2009 tribute concert to the American composer Cy Coleman.


5. Finally, a couple of early cuts. just to show that she’s always had it, starting with a great performance from the Howard Stern show in 1997 – when she was only 19 – of the ferocious “ Sleep to Dream” song from her debut album, Tidal. Followed by a monologue recorded in 2010 on various subjects, with all the anecdotes circling around the place that music has always held in her life – and told as sincerely as anyone can manage, at least while wearing a pair of ridiculously extravagant gloves.