Marking the end of 2016, Fiona Apple performed an impassioned version of her Anti-Trump Christmas parody “Trump’s Nuts Roast on an Open Fire”, at a benefit concert for North Dakotas Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, whose attempts received much publicity for trying to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline construction. At the end of her song, in empathic fashion she screamed, “Donald Trump, fuck you!”
Being provocative is only one of Fiona Apple’s many moods. She is also sometimes described as mournful and sultry. Enigmatic comes to mind too. But one of the more unkind descriptions of her is as an unhinged melancholy songstress.
I can see why someone might easily think that, she isn’t backwards in coming forward. You see this is her greatest strength as a songwriter and social commentator. If she has something on her mind, she says it. Some twenty years ago she used her MTV platform where she accepted an award for Best New Artist to call the rock world “bullshit” and today she is still ruffling feathers.
Our next great generation, the Millenials, can be excused for not having a clue who is Fiona Apple. Whether the rest of us still care or believe that she is relevant is a question that interests me. Of course, I am definitely interested in anything she still has to say, despite the views of some of her harshest critics that she is nothing but a self absorbed drama queen. It is true that she is almost as well known for her emotional problems as she is for her musical talent. It’s hard not to think about that because her music is littered with references to feelings of heartache, sadness, despair and betrayal. Occasionally it makes for hard listening especially Sullen Girl from her album Tidal (1996), which is about her devastating experience of being raped at the age of 12, in the hallway of her apartment building after walking home from school.
As a fan of Apple, I have come to realise that it is worthwhile to be patient and ride out the highs and lows with her. Her musical output has been relatively rare over the last twenty-plus years since she first exploded onto the music scene, and this is in a way a reflection of her emotional state. In short, she spent many years in between albums fighting her own inner demons and studio heads. That said, the hyper critical Apple has released albums in 1996, 1999, 2005, 2012 and 2020. The mere fact that she is back more recently with her new album Fetch The Bolt Cutters, makes the songs on it even more bitter sweet to listen to.
By the way, it’s probably important to mention that her music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. To best describe it, Jazz pop or Art pop comes to mind. That said, it’s also fair to say a majority of her music, which is definitely one of the criticisms my friends have about Apple, is that her music is heavily piano driven in attitude. But that is what makes her so special, along with her famous subdue (contralto) vocals. Take for example Parting Gift from Extraordinary Machine (2005), it is devastatingly beautiful for a bitter break up song, just Apple and her piano.
Among Apple’s many highlights, her songs Shadowboxer and Sleep To Dream from her album Tidal caught my ear early the mid 1990s before Criminal controversially made her a huge star and not necessarily for the right reasons. (Critics slammed her video for not promoting a healthy body image for young women. She appears exposed as a rail-thin temptress.) I am also quite fond of her Beatles version of Across The Universe, which appeared on the film soundtrack for Pleasantville (1998). The music video is actually quite cool too. For someone with such a sullen pout it is amazing to see her smile so often throughout the video.
From her 1999 album When the Pawn Meets the King… (The entire title is in fact a 90 word poem) I’m gobsmacked by her brilliance on songs like Limp, Paper Bag and Fast As You Can. The latter in particular is so catchy and upbeat, led by a Jazz Pop rhythm that you almost forget that the song is about unstable relationships. Even on The Idler Wheel…(2012) Apple reminds us that she’s a force to be reckoned with. I just love Every Single Night in which she seems to howl, growl and cry, all at the same time.
And while it still feels like early days with the release of her new album, it’s certainly a thrill to have Fetch The Bolt Cutters join her impressive back catalogue. For those of us still hiding away from the world at the moment, we will undoubtedly find something interesting in Apple’s poignant commentary, even after such a long absence. (Apple’s last album was 2012’s The Idler Wheel…) Take for example Apple’s lyrics in Relay: “Evil is a relay sport, when the one who’s burned, turns to pass the torch”. Or how about “You get dragged down, down to the same spot enough times in a row / The bottom begins to feel like the only safe place that you know” in Heavy Balloon.
As haunting and moody as she can be, it is ultimately the lyrics of all her songs, complimented by her jazz infused sounds, that makes her truly one of the most empowered female artists of her generation. In short, I guess alongside Alanis Morissette and P J Harvey, Fiona Apple is a genius!
Photo credit: The header imageof Fiona Apple is licensed and used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. I am not the uploder of You Tube clips embedded here.
Note: This featured article was originally written in 2018. It has been updated here with some new content.