For all her undoubted ability, Fiona Apple was ever an unlikely pop star. Sure, she has the looks — when she sprang onto the scene, nervy as a cougar, in America in the 1990s, few could have failed to have been entranced by her bony, big-eyed angelicism. But most of the time you worried about Apple, something she played up to in the video of the song responsible for making her a star, 1997’s Grammy-winning Criminal from Tidal, in which she sat, eyes kohl-smudged, painfully sinewy legs askew, jail-bait in a bra and pants, a thread of mania fluttering across her face. YouTube comments beneath the video are divided between praising her looks and worrying about her self-lacerating thinness. Like Tori Amos before her, you couldn’t figure out whether Apple needed to be idolised or locked up. But like the best stars, it was impossible to look away from her.
In the years between then and now, Apple, 34, has released three more albums, treading a unique path between jazz, indie-rock, showtunes and Kate Bush-laced weirdism. Her contralto vocals, lurching between registers and set against minimalist piano, are all id and very little superego: as percussive as they are melodic, mathematically persuasive and channelling what she calls “the genesis of rhythm”. You can feel Apple calling her songs to her from deep within a volcanic core — they flirt with accepted pop norms, but rarely pay conventional pop the respect of attending to its nuances. Agony is not her default emotion, at least overtly, but it ripples beneath the surface of every one of her songs, looming its head up often, a monster from the deep. In truth, it’s a miracle Apple is a Billboard topselling artist, a reflection, perhaps, of the weirdness and unhappiness in America’s heartland, a place where the misanthropic TV show Breaking Bad can be a hit.
“Look at me,” Apple almost screams on her new album, the laboriously titled The Idler Wheel. . . (Apple seems to relish laughter-inducing titles). “I’m all the fishes in the sea.” Here comes that agony again: “I stared at you, and cut myself.” “I don’t want to talk about anything.” “All I do is beg to be left alone.” While the likes of Linkin Park play a good emo-pop game, Apple is the one genuinely thrusting a razor in your direction, despite what the disguise of the snazzily jazzy, showtunes trimmings would imply. Cutlery clattering, boots marching crisply on snow, oodles of reverbed piano: The Idler Wheel is idiosyncratic and rich in its musical palette: this is a full, fascinating world. It’s also a labyrinth: each new listen pulls you in further and deeper. It won’t be for everyone — and some might actively hate it — but Apple is pushing boundaries every time a new song opens, and she defends her right to play etch-a-sketch with her own despair. As she points out on Werewolf, “Nothing wrong/when a song ends/in a minor key.”
four stars NO’R
Download: Werewolf; Hot Knife