Fiona Apple. Where to start? Is there an artist in the world who is more deserving of the recognition she hasn’t received? Of course it doesn’t help when you only produce four albums in 20 years and when the gap between albums three and four is seven years. And that gap grows bigger by a year each time so it will probably be at least 2020 by the time she puts out another one; we’ll have a Labour government and there’ll be a billionaire E.T. lookalike in the White House before then.
Then there is the touring, or lack of it. She hasn’t been outside of North America for a decade, rarely performs there either, and the only place you can be fairly confident she’ll turn up from time to time is her present day home city of Los Angeles, (and which is where her sister, the renowned cabaret singer Maude Maggart, also mainly earns her living) where Fiona Apple plays a one-off show on October 12. She ain’t coming to Manchester any time soon, for all the times I wrote to the International Festival committee begging them to get her here. They’d have been queue-ing the length of the East Lancs Road and across Europe for tickets.
There have been well documented disputes with record companies of course, such as the one that delayed third album Extraordinary Machine, but essentially Apple is a very private person and one who spends a lot of time wrestling with some pretty intense demons. She is on record as saying that she only writes when she feels like it, which is every Preston Guild, but when she does the end result is usually, well, extraordinary.
Selecting a classic track isn’t easy. With her body of work I could fill this column every week for the next six months. It would be easy to go for one of the early and most celebrated songs, and especially from her first album, Tidal, such as Criminal (which could have featured that video), Shadowboxer, Never is a Promise (which, astonishingly she wrote aged 14 and which could bring a tear to a Samoan rugby player’s eye), Sleep to Dream, or Sullen Girl (which heartbreakingly alludes to her brutal rape at the age of 12 on her way home from school). Or perhaps Paper Bag from When the Pawn…, or something from Extraordinary Machine such as the poignant Red, Red, Red or Not about Love, which is full of wordplay of the highest order.
Speaking of Not about Love, is there anyone else on the planet who could write “…conversation, once coloured by esteem, became dialogue as a diagram of a play for blood”? Or sing about “falling for the kingcraft of a meritless crown”? Or recite a complex fourteen line mid-song stanza so fast that one critic watching a live performance mistook it for scat?
And all of this is contained within songs that are fundamentally about her love life, lack of it or break-ups. Rarely does she venture outside those boundaries. As she declares stridently in Not about Love, “I am not in love; in fact I can’t stop falling out; I miss that stupid ache.”
But despite these temptations I opted for a track from the Idler Wheel, her most recent album. (A note for the uninitiated: the Idler Wheel is the short form of a full title that is 23 words long. The full title of When the Pawn… is actually 90 words long, began life as a poem, and was for a while the longest album title in music history). Like Manchester, Fiona does things ‘differently.’
The Idler Wheel is a stripped back album to use the common vernacular, and one that was produced by another relatively unrecognised US musician, Charley Drayton, who was her drummer on Extraordinary Machine. The bond between them was sufficiently strong for Apple to ask Drayton to dream up some innovative beats on which she could base some new songs for the next album, a little matter of six years down the line.
It has been said of Apple that she lays her soul bare more often, and better, than anyone else in rock music today. You could add that she manages to hang out her dirty washing at the same time as well. The track I chose, the remarkable Regret, merges all of these things: the inventive beat (with a hint of Zulu war drums), the washing, and more angst and soul searching than should be permitted on any single song by the Geneva Convention.
It is possibly about a relationship that went catastrophically wrong earlier in her life when she was living in her native New York. I say that because she slips into a very heavy New York dialect and accent quite early on, “Now all you gotta do’s remind me that we met.”
Whoever he is or was I wouldn’t like to have been in his shoes. The brooding and doom laden 15 chord piano opening sequence that ends just so is the perfect preparation for a verbal assault, backed up by Apple’s forceful piano and Drayton’s crashing cymbals, which she gently states first, as if still trying to make sense of it all, before sc reaming it. “I ran out of white dove feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me.”
The wonderful double entendre that Apple is so capable of is manifest here; the white feathers of the dove, the symbol of peace, and of cowardice. (There is another one in the track Werewolf, when she opens with, “I could liken you to a werewolf” (liken/lycan, get it?).
Then that plaintive outro, “leave me alone…leave me alone.” No wonder she has legions of (mainly female) fans of a certain age, all of whom have first-hand experience of one or more climactic relationship meltdowns. Is there any other contemporary artist writing and singing like this? I’d give anything to watch this performed live here – she knows exactly what performance art means and pulls no punches on stage – but sadly it doesn’t look like that will be. Fiona Apple, prove me wrong.
©D J Bentley, 2015