So, full disclosure: I love Fiona Apple. My least favourite of all her albums is her first record, which is still extremely impressive for someone of her age. (Compare it to records made by similarly aged artists through the history of pop music, I bet it stands out pretty strongly). So I don’t think I can be unbiased here, I was probably going to like this even without the hype (which I have been trying to ignore).
When I was younger I was obsessed with artistic growth – if a band didn’t take major risks on its next album, I was nearly always disappointed. (Unless the album appealed to me on some visceral level that overwhelmed my conscious desire to look for “growth”). I blame The Beatles for this as I believe I subconsciously used their inhuman creative leaps as a standard all should aspired to. (While at the same time enjoying bands like AC/DC, which never grow. Figure out that contradiction…)
But as I get older I have a much greater appreciation for artists and bands who know themselves well enough to make records that sound like they should sound, for lack of a better word. What I mean is artists and bands who are able to sound like themselves. But what’s impressive to me is when someone manages to both sound like themselves and sound new or different. That ideal has replaced my obsession with growth for the sake of growth.
I mention this because this Fiona Apple both sounds, at times, like every other Fiona Apple album, and also very different from every previous Fiona Apple album, and that is something I greatly admire. (In addition to liking the songs, as I always do.)
The first two songs are pretty classic Apple, but once we get to the title track, the more radical nature of this album starts to unveil itself. Apple only plays piano on four songs (!!!). It’s replaced by various keyboards but also, percussion, which is one of the two main things that really differentiates this album from her previous efforts. People have made Tom Waits comparisons and I don’t think they’re that insane – if you can imagine a female Tom Waits with a much more conventional voice, who recorded the album in her house.
The other thing is the way in which Apple is using her voice – on some of these tracks the influence of Hip Hop – or, at least, Hip Hop-influenced music – is palpable in her delivery, something I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before. It’s the other aspect of the record that feels like a step in a new direction, though she still very much sounds only like herself.
I haven’t sat down and listened to all the albums in a row, so I’m not sure I want to rank this record within her catalogue in terms of songs, but I’d say it’s one of her better sets. As usual the lyrics are excellent and her sense of melody is unfailing – as it has to be, given how relatively radical the arrangements are compared to her earlier albums.