Imagine hearing, in 1998, that Fiona Apple — you know, the “Criminal” girl, the one with the video where she strips and sings in the bathtub; she had that freak-out at the MTV Awards and called everybody bullshit, you know her — would one day be almost universally beloved by music journalists. That she would be considered one of the best songwriters of her generation; that her live shows would be the must-see music-nerd event of the year; that some reviewers would compare Fiona Apple, favorably, to Leonard Cohen.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have believed it. The launch of Fiona Apple was drenched in music-industry cynicism and sexism. She was one of a series of pretty ladies with instruments and feelings, signed to capitalize on a momentary chick-rock bubble. She was a teenager with one demo tape, no history of live performances, and a face that could sell a magazine cover; her debut, Tidal, had two or three unforgettable set pieces surrounded by a lot of vague, pretty, lite-jazz-inflected space. She was expected to speak about her rape in every interview, so as to reaffirm her sensitivity and depth, while also making kiddie porn–inspired videos and posing for Terry Richardson, so as not to alienate straight male customers. She was meant to show up, wonder where all the cowboys had gone, get interviewed for Rolling Stone’s “Year of the Woman” issue, and then, she was meant to disappear.
Fiona Apple, essentially, was meant to be Vanessa Carlton. The fact that she’s still making albums in 2012 is surprising. The fact that her latest, The Idler Wheel…, is undeniably the best album of 2012 — after 14 years and two interim releases, each of which seemed to represent a quantum leap forward in defining her hyperintelligent, startlingly honest, resolutely individual sensibility — is one of the most gratifying success stories in music.
The first sign of what we were in for came last March, when Apple played a couple of showcases at SXSW. YouTube videos of her performance quickly went to every musically inclined corner of the Internet. To understand the difference between the artist Fiona Apple was meant to be and the artist she’s become, just watch her perform “Criminal” in 2012.
The studio version of the song was a fantastic pop single: raunchy, decadent, dripping with innuendo, with Apple coyly confessing what a “bad, bad girl” she’d been and inviting you to punish her. The new “Criminal” is entirely different. Now it’s a straight-faced account of shame and self-loathing, which crosses the line from transgressive to viscerally disturbing. Apple pulls all the vocals from some shaky, volatile place deep in her gut. Half the time, she mutters the lines with palpable disgust; half the time, she shrieks them in desperation. She heads up into a falsetto that shakes like a panic attack, then dives back down into an awful groan.
The new arrangement strips away the song’s sultry atmosphere, making it darker and sharper; the guitar, in particular, hacks and stabs like an inexperienced butcher. By the time Apple’s screaming that she needs to be redeemed, she needs it, she’s so terrible, she loves him, you’re actually scared for her. And then she backs away from the microphone. And she gives a startling, huge grin to the piano player. And you realize that, wow, Fiona Apple is just that good. She was in control the entire time.
This is impressive in its own right. But when you consider that every live song these days is being delivered with that level of unguarded intensity, it’s mind-boggling. And Idler Wheel shares the same unsparing honesty and willingness to take almost frightening risks.
Idler Wheel is willfully simple; there are no more lush arrangements or meandering, pretty riffs. The space that isn’t filled by Apple’s voice or piano is typically filled by drums or weird found noise; the lyrics, she says, are mostly first drafts. And although Apple’s smoky, enormous alto is one of pop’s great instruments, she doesn’t rely on its beauty. She employs screeches and growls and whimpers and hoarse, creaky-voiced exhaustion, anything that serves the mood.
This is risky business. But stripping away the rewrites and overdubs only makes Apple a more compelling musician. Her early lyrics sometimes verged on precious: “My derring-do allows me to dance the rigadoon,” or “Oh, your love give me a heart contusion.” On this record, Apple nails both complex, striking imagery (“I ran out of white dove’s feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes through your mouth”) and conversational directness (“I don’t even like you any more at all”) without straining for effect. Similarly, although the song structures can be witty and complex — consider the way the piano on “Daredevil” bounces and leaps Knievel-ishly between chords, accompanied by drum rolls — they’re never overcooked. “Hot Knife” comprises one drum rhythm, two piano runs, and maybe ten sentences. But as these layer and interwine, the song builds to an irresistible momentum, something that perfectly captures the Technicolor rush of falling in love.
The album is a triumph in more ways than one. Our culture has always had a place for literate, complicated, wordy songwriters: We have our Dylans and our Cohens, our David Bermans and our Dan Bejars. But that kind of intelligence usually comes packaged with a certain level of reassuring, masculine distance and cool. Apple’s occupying a riskier position; her gift lies in channeling extremes of volatility and vulnerability. (One song on Idler Wheel, “Valentine,” is so vulnerable, I actually can’t listen to it. The line “I stared at you and cut myself” next to the line “I love you” makes me feel like I’m hearing something she’ll regret telling me later.) When women do this, we tend to see them as damaged, out of control, somehow unaware of what they’re doing. We don’t see craft, we see crazy.
But, again: Look at the smile at the end of that “Criminal” performance. Listen to The Idler Wheel. These songs succeed, not just because of their intensity, but because of their self-awareness and wit. “Left Alone” details Apple’s emotional unavailability and fears of dying unloved with all the poor-me torment of a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song: “I can love the same man / In the same bed / In the same city,” Apple sings, “But not in the same room / It’s a pity.”
In fact, Apple’s emotional range broadens with every record. Say what you will about fan favorite When the Pawn, but it’s hard to find a song on it that can’t be described as either “sad” or “angry.” Extraordinary Machine contained gleams of light, but spent most of its time with the shades drawn. Idler Wheel spans the disillusioned eye roll of “Periphery,” the sorrowful resignation of “Werewolf,” and the tender, playful eroticism of “Anything We Want,” without any one song feeling out of place. “I just want to feel everything,” Apple declares on the opening track. She seems to be succeeding. And, even more surprising, lots of “everything” feels good.
The Year of the Woman is over. Thank God, because Years of Women are terrible. They sound like “good job,” but what they really mean is “you can go now.” Fiona Apple didn’t disappear when she was meant to; instead, she’s refined her lyrics, her voice, her music, her performance, until not one of us can deny them. (The thought that the next album will likely be better than Idler Wheel, given her track record, is alarming. I imagine some Infinite Jest scenario where we all hear it once and die from the shock.) 2012 isn’t the Year of the Woman, or Women, or Lilith Fair, or chick rock, or anything else. This year — finally — is Fiona Apple’s year.
Sady Doyle is a writer for Rookie who lives in New York. She has contributed to The Awl, The Atlantic, and Slate, amongst others, and started the blog Tiger Beatdown.