Dancing with Untamed Wolves: Fiona Apple’s Music (for the Night and Day After)

“Like her second CD, When the Pawn … , the full title of which, at 90 words, appeared, to her pride, in the Guinness Book of World Records, this album’s title is a sort of proverb: The Idler Wheel Is ­Wiser / Than the Driver of the Screw / And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More / Than Ropes Will Ever Do. For so long she’d identified with the idler wheel, a mechanism that “has a big impact on whatever machine it’s in, but it just looks like it’s doing nothing, sitting and taking in everything,” but now she wasn’t sure.” –Dan P. Lee*

“You don’t have to be different to be good.  But if you’re good, you’re different.” –Irving Berlin

There are three things to know about the new Fiona Apple album.

  1. It’s percussion based.
  2. It’s a jazz trio structure.
  3. It’s got Apple’s trademark lyricism and performance.

That’s really all you need.  If you like the idea, go have a listen.  It’s quite available in a variety of formats and quite something to hear in a variety of spaces.  If not, let it be.  There is probably nothing here for you.

I love the record, easily one of the best of the year (of what I have heard), but it took me by surprise. Over the course of her career I’ve grown to assume a certain presence about her; a way of presenting and isolating a series of thoughts.  What I have always wanted to hear is something of a basement tape or demo, something drawn out from the covers with only a minimal amount of backing to spring board the efforts.

This is finally that.  The primary sound captured on the record is of its making, of a jazz trio: percussion, bass, piano and voice.  It sounds like it was made in a room, on the spot, with little tinkering to make it more presentable to the heads on the mountain.  There are some other instruments and sound collages brought in at key moments to give just the slightest bump (which work quite well without distracting from the whole), but all in all it’s as simple as that.  And it would seem freeing.  Apple is not overwhelmed with sound.  There are not so many arrangements that the whole becomes a bit muddied.

Every single night

I endure the flight

Of little wings of white-flamed

Butterflies in my brain

These ideas of mine

Percolate the mind

Trickle down the spine

Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze

That’s when the pain comes in

Like a second skeleton

Trying to fit beneath the skin

I can’t fit the feelings in

Every night’s a fight

with my brain

She’s always carried pieces of this album, but the current structure, as a result of the band, is a bit more playful and loose.  There’s experimentation I have never so heard from her.  While songs are still serious, they hold a sensibility that’s lightened, like the pressure cooker whose top has been removed; the process of making, experimenting, and tempting threading its’ way through and sounding like it made for a time.  She’s toying us, toying with what has become her, toying with who we think she is or ought to be.

Remember the song Mercedes Benz by Janis Joplin?  It’s a simple construction.  Hand claps for rhythm and her voice.  It’s a flavor not easily achieved by most, it requires an exorbitant amount of talent, but when done well it is indescribably wonderful.

Listening to Apple’s new album, this is all I can think about.  While not limited to such simplicity as Joplin, in comparison to her past work it achieves a very similar goal.  It’s focused and pulls in the strands to allow her talents to really shine.

Backed by a wondrous bass and percussion, ideas grab a hold from the language of her situation. The songs have levels ever deepening as they are wide via the simplicity allowed.  Amidst all these horrors we can still have a good time, jam a bit and make everything around us better, if only for a moment.

And in their blazing solitude
The stars sang in their sockets through the night:
‘Blow bright, blow bright
The coal of this unquickened world.’**

*Dan P. Lee, ‘I Just Want to Feel Everything’: Hiding Out With Fiona Apple, Musical Hermit

**Philip Larkin, Night Music

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