The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Lifestyles

July 13, 2012

Jeremiah Tucker: Apple’s songwriting as voyeruistic, honest as ever

JOPLIN, Mo. — The one thing I’ll miss about major record labels when they’re something we recall only while huddling around a meager campfire we built with used CDs to keep the perma-dark at bay in the post-apocalyptic future is that there was a time when they took a chance on an artist as weird as Fiona Apple.

Since she first came to national attention when she was a teenager with the release of her debut album “Tidal” in 1996, Apple has been an unconventional star. Her breakthrough single “Criminal” was a sinister, piano-driven song whose notorious music video positioned Apple as a waifish vamp vibrating at some frequency between vulnerable and aggressive.

In the video she appeared in various states of undress looking impossibly young. Watching it today on my computer I was tempted to clear my Internet cache for fear of the police showing up at my door, but it’s clear in the video Apple is purposefully playing with the idea of objectification.

She is, after all, the only person whose face is shown. Everyone else is framed so only their (young, attractive) body parts are showing, usually with Apple lying near them. She’s both fidgety and confrontational, implying she’s uncomfortable being an object of desire while at the same time enjoying turning the viewer into a conspicuous voyeur.

More than anything else, however, the video leaves you with the impression that no one controls her, not even herself.That impression hasn’t changed over the last 16 years, which have seen the arrival of only three more albums by Apple. She released her latest, “The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do,” last month.

Apple tends to wholly disappear from public life between albums, and the announcement that she would release a new album this year came as a surprise to almost everyone, including her label, Epic Records. She recorded it privately with her touring drummer, in part, she has said, to avoid mismanagement by her record company.

In March, Apple returned with a string of comeback shows that garnered huge buzz because of the intensity of her performances. At the time, I followed the shows on YouTube, and while I’m sure the filter of handheld camerawork filmed by someone in the crowd blunted the impact of her performance, Apple was mesmerizing nonetheless.

She’s notoriously stage shy, yet at the same time strives to communicate fully the emotional truths present in her song resulting in a similar friction present in the “Criminal” video, that of someone at conflict with herself.

But the adult Apple is clearly better at forgetting there is an audience and erasing any trace of self-consciousness while the song is playing.  

Listening to Apple, you can still feel like a voyeur.

Her lyrics are just so good and precise and weirdly personal.

On “Valentine,” off the new album, she sings, “You didn’t see my valentine, I sent it via pantomime. While you were watching someone else, I stared at you and cut myself.” Later in the song she says, “I’m a tulip in a cup” to signal her time has past.    

There aren’t many artists, in fact, who are better at imagery and metaphors than Apple. “Werewolf” begins with the line, “I could liken you to a werewolf the way you left me for dead, but I admit that I provided a full moon.” On “Anything We Want” she sings, “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.”

Musically, “The Idler WheelÉ” is her most pared-down album to date, recorded with barely more than her piano, drumming and her voice, but while she deals with the same inner-conflicts and busted romances that she has her whole career, the emotional impact of the songs are, like the music, more laser-focused and pointed as well.   

Apple strikes me as the kind of artist who would not do well in a 9-to-5 job. She’s too raw, honest and up-front about her flaws, not only on record but in interviews as well. In a New York Times article she recently described walking up a hill over and over again for eight hours a day until she developed a limp. On “Periphery” she discusses an ex-boyfriend who “found a prettier girl than me, with a more even-tempered air.”

While she may have been too much for her boyfriend, I imagine the millions of fans who have found her music over the years are fine with her never mellowing out.

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