Few artist wear the sad events of their past as well as Fiona Apple. Her beautiful music was made more authentic when it was revealed that she suffered from various afflictions that were directly related to a traumatic childhood event. Not only did those unfortunate events color and add passion to Apple’s music, it also dictated her public image. She essentially previewed America’s rural crystal meth problem. A future where skinny desolate women made and sold crack in a hopeless life of dependency. A lot of disturbing messages came from the video for ‘Criminal’, but the album it came off of became a must have musical addition for many like myself that year.
For a first effort, Tidal was an accomplished sound, thanks to producer Andrew Slater who tried to channel Apple’s love of hip hop and classical and jazz composers. Critics debated how focused Apple’s songwriting was, but for a 19-year-old with such varied musical interests, the songs were cohesive and quite polished.
There was no disagreements however that her blend of jazz, and alt-rock peppered with a bit of soul held a great deal of potential. Despite the gloomy, tense nature of the songs, Tidal struck a nerve with the general public, becoming a multi-platinum seller.
Although she sounded like she was in the process of finding her voice, Tidal was an original enough formula that Apple won a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 1996 for the hit song ‘Criminal’.
With six singles (two of which were top 40 material), Tidal produced enough alt-rock radio fodder to carry her over the nearly three years until her next album. Many of the songs were confessional, detailed aspects of a troubled life that had seen more than its share of sorrow.
Apple was raped as a child and later developed an eating disorder, so the alternating moments of angst and melancholy were just part of the emotional baggage she carried into the albums production. Some of the standouts include ‘Sullen Girl’ and ‘Slow Like Honey’, but nearly every song seemed to have come from the experience of sadness and disappointment.
For me the most striking aspect of Fiona Apple wasn’t her music, but her image. The bad girl angle was not new, but she brought with it an element of troublesome realism. I don’t know if it was the eating disorder or the trauma of having been raped, but Apple came across as a kind of trashy trailer park junkie.
This was the image I had firmly in my head before I saw the controversial video for ‘Criminal’ where she was portrayed as such. As troubling as her run-ins with the law and rude declarations to fans onstage were, she had the style and grace that kept them coming back for more.
With a few exceptions, very few female artists were blazing the same trail as Apple. Oddly enough it would be Mark Eitzel who’s music would come closest to Apple’s mix of jazz and alternative rock fused with a seedy lyrical subtext.
Apple would realize her potential more on When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King… released a few years later while she was at the ripe old age of 22. Few artists have been able to find their voice so early in their career.