Nothing wrong when a song ends in a minor key.

I’m not sure which female pop stars most newly-teenage guys were lusting after in 1997 while navigating the strangeness of puberty. If I had pinups on my wall at the time (not that I did), there probably would have been images of Emma Bunton and Victoria Beckham — “Baby Spice” and “Posh Spice” in those days — Jewel, and maybe Mariah Carey.

I wasn’t a fan of the music any of them made. It was more a matter of thinking, “You’re beautiful, and though I know I’ll never have you, that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy having semi-wholesome fantasies about you.”

I think every living person with a libido goes through a similar stage of having celebrity crushes when they’re young and full of hormones. Plenty of adults have celebrity crushes too. It’s harmless fun and a useful reminder that certain body parts are still in good working order.

The first female artist I ever felt a more serious stirring for was Fiona Apple. When she came along, I’d never seen anything quite like her. This was before my self-imposed musical re-education, when I was still very much into pretty mainstream music and I still listened to commercial radio pretty often. So the only exposure I had to a lot of music was what I heard on the radio, or what I saw on television in the form of phone sex commercials (some call them “music videos”). My introduction to Fiona came via the latter medium.

She was beautiful, but in a different, earthier, unaffected way. Her songs came from a much darker, more personal place than anything I’d heard from a girl who played piano and wrote her own material. She never sounded young or “cute”, even then when she was still a teenager. Her voice was deep, weary, sultry, muscular. It contained dimensions I hadn’t heard before in the realm of “popular music made by pretty young people”.

There was something unusual about her. A vulnerability, and at the same time a sense of danger. She was silk-wrapped razor blades. I didn’t want to stare at her in music videos with goo-goo eyes. She was the strange, alluring, fascinating outcast I wanted to find and befriend in high school.

It wasn’t an obsession, but a different kind of interest I’d never felt for someone I saw on television. I actually found her interesting as a person. This is someone who, when she was eighteen years old, gave an acceptance speech at the MTV  Video Music Awards in which she told everyone watching, “This world is bullshit, and you shouldn’t model your life on what we think is cool, and what we’re wearing, and what we’re saying. Go with yourself.”

The general consensus at the time seemed to be that what she did was ridiculous and immature. I saw it on television when it happened. I thought it was brave, and a little startling. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of her, and that was what made her exciting. She didn’t fit. She wasn’t a corporate puppet. When she had something to say, she said it. I almost fell over when I caught her on a late night show singing a song with a chorus of, “It won’t be long ’til you’ll be lying limp in your own hand,” spitting the words into the microphone with such force that she blew her voice out mid-performance. Her interviews were sometimes uncomfortable to read because of how unguarded she was. I always found it a little sad that some people pegged her as being crazy when she really just had the courage to be herself in a business where that’s not something you’re supposed to do.

I’d like to say I went out and bought her first album Tidal as soon as I knew it existed. I didn’t, though I should have. Back then I had this mental block when it came to music made by women. It had nothing to do with thinking they were inferior artists to men. It was about the feelings I had for women in general.

They were a foreign country I didn’t think I would ever get to visit. I admired them from afar and found them fascinating creatures but didn’t feel I was allowed on their wavelength. When it came to their music, the thought of investigating it kind of unsettled me, if I’m being completely honest. I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I think I felt I wasn’t supposed to be privy to their thoughts and feelings in art form, since I wasn’t privy to them in any other form and didn’t have any real female friends.

It took Kate Bush to break down that wall a year or so later when I read about her, bought The Dreaming on a whim, and listened to it about three hundred times in the space of a few months. But I still didn’t investigate any of Fiona Apple’s music for a long time beyond the bits I caught on television. I’m not sure why.

When I did finally get around to it, I found Tidal was the only album that really resonated with me. There was a rawness to it that was electric. Every album I heard after that felt somehow too safe. Too polished. The talent was there, but I wanted the music and the production to go stranger places — to match the intensity of what she was singing about.

I found myself in the odd position of liking her more than I liked most of her music (again, with the exception of Tidal — there’s a lot more to it than “Criminal”). Then she fell off my radar for a good long while.

A few days ago I read about a new Fiona Apple album with a very long title: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. I thought I’d listen to some of the thirty-second song preview clips on Amazon just for something to do. After hearing a piece of the first song, I knew I was going to buy it the first chance I had.

This is the album I always hoped she might make one day. It’s weird, skeletal, aggressively noncommercial, and fiercely out of step with anything going on in popular music right now. She does things with her voice I’ve never heard her do before, shifting on a dime from a playful moan to an angry roar. I’m not sure anyone else could turn the word “brain” into a ten-syllable battle cry that ends up being one of the catchiest hooks on their whole album.

Fiona’s always had a facility for slinging anger in such a way that it sounds like she’s ripping the words out of her guts. That’s here too, but it only happens in a few quick flashes, making the explosive moments that much more powerful and surprising. Even “Valentine”, the one song that felt slight to me on first listen, has more emotional complexity to it than the lyrics would suggest. When she sings, “I love you,” during the chorus, she repeats the word “you” over and over again, her voice growing more crazed with each reiteration, until it sounds like a desperate attempt to convince herself of something she doesn’t really feel, or an effort to force the object of her affection to love her back with the weight of her own need.

It’s intensely personal stuff in a way that isn’t at all contrived. A few songs almost read like someone I’ve been in a troubled relationship with (and there have been a few of those) is trying to explain herself to me as honestly as she can. I’ve never experienced that with any other music I’ve heard.

What really puts it over the top for me is the production. It’s an unusual-sounding album and the most austere thing she’s ever done. Almost every song is built around her piano and voice, with barely a conventional drum beat or predictable groove in sight. Instead, rhythm is provided by the sound of fabric tearing, a bottle-making machine whirring, thighs being slapped, murky loops of indeterminate origin, and scissors hitting tin and plastic. Nothing sounds manipulated. Nothing is pitch-corrected. I don’t think there’s even any artificial reverb anywhere on the album. Every strange sound seems to be organic and man/woman-made.

And I’m not sure where Fiona gets these chord progressions from, but they’re absurdly inventive and unpredictable. How she manages to weave vocal melodies on top of what she’s doing on the piano is beyond me. I counted one somewhat normal/standard chord progression over the course of the whole album, acting as a hook in one song. That’s it. It’s as if she took pieces of all the jazz standards and Nina Simone songs she’s always loved, fragmented and refracted them inside of her brain, and then spit them back out as something her own. You could almost call some parts of the album “industrial blues without blues structures”. But I don’t think you can really stuff it into any category at all, and that’s part of its beauty.

For my money, it’s by far the best thing she’s ever done, and one of the best new albums I’ve heard by anyone in quite a while. It’s also one of the most dynamic albums I’ve heard in recent memory, to the point that it’s necessary to turn the volume up or down at certain points in the middle of songs. That’s shocking to hear, given how much music is still being crushed to death at the mastering stage.

Almost everything about this album is unexpected. In case you can’t tell, I kind of like it.

2 comments

    1. I’m angling for a job reviewing albums on Pitchfork!

      But seriously, I was really surprised by it. It’s always refreshing when instead of getting creatively lazy as they get older and experience commercial/critical success, you watch an artist slink away from more conventional sounds and start getting a lot more adventurous. Hopefully it’s not just a one-off.

      By the way, where’s my email? Don’t make me send you another novel! I’ll do it! Kittens will cry! Toasters will die!

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