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We look back at Fiona Apple's Tidal, on the day it turned 20.
Nothing could be more boring than a discussion of Fiona Apple’s character. If Tidal, her 1996 debut, was a tell-all of Apple’s body, boyfriends, eating habits or prescribed medications, she would have been encouraged to spare critics the details.
But it’s not a tell-all. The songs — and the blurred, blue eyes splayed across the album’s cover — leave much to be desired by way of a narrative. Apple names no names. She’s a boxer, a “bad, bad girl,” a shell of a being. Abuse is a force of nature and lust is a hellscape, both of which she wields in a haze. Her words always come out clear but the actions behind them can be ambiguous, shrouded by metaphor. That’s the point. “I’m very thrilled that other people can get something out of my songs, but I write them for myself,” she said in a 1997 interview with Rolling Stone. At 19 years old, Apple knew that she was under no obligation to tell stories; she would sing her own in whatever language she pleased. If people listened and longed to know more, they could go ahead and theorize. Or they could wait for the next record.
The last couple decades have done little to quiet this kind of invasive commentary. A fan at one of Apple’s 2013 performances shouted speculations on her health and weight. The objectification of women in music never sees an end, even for an artist whose voice sinks deeper than an image on a screen ever will. Elusively candid, teetering between rage and grace at every angle, Tidal is the kind of debut that only Apple could follow up (seeing that each of her albums hits harder than the last and from a different direction).
There’s no use in reading into the record autobiographically. It works best when uprooted from the context of Apple’s life. Then it can stretch out to fit the whole universe, because not everyone is a poet, a classically trained pianist, and a survivor all by the age of 18. Everyone, however, has dreamt up revenge on an ex or an asshole, stammered before letting their guard down or been frightened by a lack of feeling.
This is what it means to be Fiona Apple. This is what it means to be anyone, though. This is normal, even when we get the sinking feeling that it’s not. She never stopped reminding us. Even on The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do, Apple sprinkles one frank proclamation through “Every Single Night”: “I just want to feel everything.” The statement runs as true in her latest release as it does on Tidal, which is another reason the debut holds up. Its sentiment is a timeless one: you can never feel too much or be too much. Anyone who suggests otherwise isn’t worth the time.
She closes out the first verse of the album by growling, “You say love is a hell you cannot bear / And I say, give me mine back and then go there, for all I care.” The opening track, “Sleep To Dream” makes for her radical introduction. It is Tidal’s firm handshake, framed by a contralto. Before Adele came Apple, but she would never sing in an SUV with James Corden. Plus, her award acceptance speeches have been slightly more aggressive.
“Sullen Girl” marks a shift in time and scene as Apple cruises the “deep and tranquil sea” before an unfamiliar force pulls her to shore to steal her pearl, leaving a hollow shell in its wake. She sings about rape and the obscurity that follows. But Apple is poetically succinct, condensing the questions of who to trust, who to tell, who would believe, how to feel, and how to get away within the first few notes. “Days like this I don't know what to do with myself / All day and all night” — a vivid articulation of fearing being alone, paired with fearing the outside world. There’s no sulking when you’re already hollowed out and sunken in. Survivors are often mistaken for sullen girls.
And while Apple revels in the lows, she has never been one to shy away from a high. Sometimes they become intertwined, like on “Criminal,” where the distinction is notoriously muddled. Surely a low has never felt this high, and a high has never been derived from such a low. She knows what she did. She foresees the consequences, too, but that’s the best part. “I’ve done wrong and I want to suffer for my sins,” she broods. Apple repurposed the pop confessional in one fell swoop. She bended genre before there were blogs. Half of Tidal belongs in a jazz club, yet she stuck the same songs on Letterman and MTV. They fit right in.
In those televised performances, Apple moves without any awareness of the linear. She disorients from limb to limb, hands twisting the microphone or fingers stretching across the keys like they’re clinging to the edge of some ledge at risk of being torn away. This is the force that sets her apart from listeners, those relegated to the audience as the mere mortals we are. On top of lyrics, she can communicate through unchoreographed motion. Nothing is chronological in her movements, as is true of real life, where feelings rarely develop sequentially.
So it makes sense to juxtapose “The First Taste” and “Never Is A Promise” — one story about anticipating the beginning and another about waiting for an end. Both act in subversive ways. “The First Taste” taps into Tidal’s familiar desire for pain, capture and conviction. Apple’s voice is the constant, with marimba and bass trailing it until the final seconds of clattering. The fall arrives shortly thereafter. Though four tracks from the end, “Never Is A Promise” feels like an anchor to the album. Its bridge brings the record to its highest note and most vulnerable statement, pushed to the surface by strings: “I don’t know what to believe in.”
This isn’t the character we’ve come to know throughout, the one who growled back, who swore that she craved repentance for her sins. Remember — Tidal is a story, not a narrative. By the next song, “The Child Is Gone,” Apple claims to “suddenly feel like a different person.” It may be offputting to finally hear her sound 19 in a record full of adult admissions, though she justified many of these cravings with curiosity all along. She’s never tried this before; she never planned on it. She asked for a piano, not a pedestal.