I’ve liked Fiona Apple’s stuff since I was a teenager. But I was surprised to find myself so invested in her comeback — reading the previews, watching shaky SXSW fan footage, searching for new photos, the whole thing. (Squid hat. Of course. Cool.) Now, with the album playing on repeat in my apartment, I suspect that my sudden interest in Apple involves more than a little old-fashioned Freudian transference: Apple isn’t a teenager anymore; I’m not a teenager anymore either. She wrote and recorded some pretty angsty music — hey, I did that too. Now she’s back with an ambitious adult project, and everyone seems ready to flip out for it; I’m scheduled to begin recording next week, and I’m in the throes of all the conceit, terror, self-doubt, and paranoia that accompanies the endeavor.
And I’ll yoke Fiona with one other symbolic duty: Fiona Apple is An Artist. Unapologetically. Whether or not you dig her music, you’re not likely to think, “You know what, Fiona Apple would make a great insurance claims adjuster.” Or a dental hygienist. Or a guidance counselor. Fiona Apple talks, looks, and acts like she makes music — a great forum for the strange, the maladapted, the beautiful, and the severe.
I live in Minneapolis, which is as supportive a city as a musician could ask for: people here buy music, they listen local, and they come to concerts. Music reviewers understand their charge to be to connect listeners with good stuff, not to showcase their discerning tastes by filleting artists in print. That said, we’re undoubtedly Midwesterners, and ours is a culture of understatement. It’s popular here to take a very workmanlike stance to music-making. After sold-out shows in big venues, headlining artists will say things like, “Oh, you know, I’m doing my job — and it’s a great job — but we’re not doing brain surgery here.” There is a strong belief that the life on tour, on stage, and in spotlights is not real life. So stay near the shore, don’t go out so far that you can swim back by dinner. But I like the occasional dose of excess, of abandon, of larger-than-life, goddamn it. And with all our approachable, down-to-earth artists, I don’t think my neighborhood would suffer a whit if we had a few crazies like Fiona Apple around. Fuck it, it’s her life. Let her spend it half-mad in a squid-hat if she wants to.
As for the album itself, I admit it didn’t rock my world off its foundations. The singles were well-chosen, with cool and inventive vocal lines, solid stuff. There’s really no surplus of melody on the disc — usually it’s Fiona’s voice pulling the cart, with drums for texture and piano or bass banging out a few interesting anchor notes. It’s an interesting approach, and stark, but it doesn’t provide quite enough gas to power a whole album, at least in this essayist’s opinion. But there is an extra-musical quality to several tracks that give me pause while making dinner or emailing on the couch. I want to hear her voice do that thing again, where it skids out like it does on track 3. And her signature move — where she seems to dam all but 10% of her voice so that the strain of staying quiet gives her a fast, manic vibrato, like a moth that’s just realized it’s been trapped between the storm window and the inner pane. I turn off the faucet or quit typing for those moments. But I don’t think I circle back to hear them for a musical thrill. I want to hear them because it’s Fiona sounding like an interesting animal. And when I hear her, I think of her waifishness, her moonish face, her album titles fated for truncation, her televised spectacles, her retreat from the public, her return to public life… and she just doesn’t seems sorry for any of it. I’m not sure how many dinners Fiona even eats, but I am positive that she is not swimming back to take her seat with us.