CLASSIC REVIEW: Fiona Apple, Tidal
The year is 1996. You are Fiona Apple on the set of MTV’s Loveline, hosted by Adam Carolla and Dr. Drew. A flood of questions come in from viewers, including a man worried about putting condoms on with his Prince Albert piercing and another who keeps making his girlfriend puke with his toxic cum. Between Drew’s bullshit relationship science, Carolla’s horrible riffing and the commercials, you can’t get a word in edgewise. You just sit there and pipe up every so often to offer the only good advice on the entire show. Then you have an interview with MTV again, this time on 120 Minutes. This one is a little better, but the majority of the interview is either the host talking or a cut to a song that isn’t yours. Then it’s 1997, you find yourself in the studio of The Howard Stern Show, a chance to expound in a longer format. During your performance he compares your vocalizations to sex moaning and introduces you with “the first thing I noticed is that your stomach is as flat as a board” followed up by “you were at a r*tarded school or something?” You are just 19 years of age. The entire music media landscape at the time was extremely small and male dominated, guided by a push-pull between pearl-clutching sensibilities and inappropriate raunch.
This is the environment that Fiona Apple started her career in, constantly pushing against the distracted media with her actual art. Public Enemy dealt with it, New Order deal with it, the constrained TV and radio programming formats and 24 hour news cycle overstuffed people’s brains with filler. Meanwhile, at 18 years old, Apple dropped fucking Tidal. TI-DAL. MTV wasted so much of this woman’s time considering that she had this classic under her belt. Channeling the music and poetry of iconics like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Maya Angelou, she helped to define the adult contemporary genre of the time alongside other great acts like Dido, Everything But The Girl and of course, Sade. After her three-track demo tape was passed to a record executive through a friend, she seized the opportunity to shine fully. Alongside her producer Andrew Slater and a wide range of talented musicians, she conceived what many fans would call her greatest work.
Tidal was her first of five gifts to the world, a testament to a woman doing things on her own terms. The most famous single from the album, “Criminal”, encapsulates both her adept use of symbolism and power as a songwriter. Collective consciousness is a phrase that I think fits well for her, she carries the spirit of Ozella Jones’ “I’ve Been A Bad Bad Girl” while putting herself in the mind of a lawbreaker. Lines like “I’ve been careless with a delicate man” and “what I need is a good defense” are iconic not just in inflection, but intention as well. The thrust of what is being said is “it’s so easy to play these men, it should be a crime”, and in the age of OnlyFans, a sentiment like this only gets truer by the year (so it fucking should by that way). With a debut, I’d expect there to be kinks and awkwardness both instrumentally and lyrically. Never was this the case for Apple, she says exactly what she means and the music consists of confident chord progressions and self-assured jam sessions by her band. I read somewhere that her music holds a “quiet rage” and I absolutely agree, we see spots of it here on cuts like the opener “Sleep To Dream”, but it came into full fruition just two years ago with “Under The Table” from Fetch The Bolt Cutters.
In certain parts, Tidal takes slower turns, as on “Slow Like Honey” and one of my favorites, “Sullen Girl”. Here, we can see some bubblings of what Lana Del Rey would become so many years later. A hopeless, restless woman flipping her vulnerabilities into beautiful soliloquies, “It’s calm under the waves, in my blue oblivion”. This track is particularly moving to me because of her keen understanding of motifs. Rather than just say “I’m in bed and I’m feeling x, y and z”, she turns her emotional experience into a rough sea. The most heartbreaking part for me has to be the line “But he washed me ashore and he took my pearl/And left an empty shell of me”, which likely refers to a sexual assault she experienced in her mid-teens. This is a brave move for such a young person to express so eloquently, to own that experience and weave into palatable art. This moment and others on Tidal prove her to be an otherworldly talent à la Prince, Bowie and Kate Bush.
Aside from “Criminal”, the bluesy piano dive bar ballad “Shadowboxer” is the second most recognizable single on the project, and for good reason. These two are almost like companions both in genre and in subject matter. Whereas on “Criminal” she has the player, on “Shadowboxer” her unpredictable lover is the one who is “letting [his] grace enrapture [her]”. Part of what makes toxic relationships I’ve been in so hard to escape is the thrill that comes from not knowing what comes next. I love the way she sings loving phrases like “you bring me to my knees” in this sinister tone, almost like she can see this man telegraphing his moves. She is trying desperately to avoid being hurt by him, but I think the ultimate conclusion is that it’s an impossible task.
This is how we get “The First Taste”, my favorite song on this record. It owes a lot to Sade musically, but lyrically this is all Fiona. She compares herself to an insect trapped in this spiderweb of love, waiting to be consumed by this person. She makes the act of submission one of power, she is dominant in her need to be “bitten into” so to speak. The acapella beginning cuts into a gorgeous wave of hand percussion, electric guitars and piano that sounds like the heaven she’s singing about. There is a raw sexual energy radiating from the cut that is undeniable, a tenseness that only amplifies as it progresses further. Music like this and “Get Me” by Everything But The Girl were adult contemporary deep cuts that gave this genre a real weight. They injected deep feeling into this label that is mostly remembered as chill radio music to soothe Gen X.
The final four songs of the album wrap Tidal in a nice package, keeping the sound palette of the record intact while providing some new approaches. “Never Is a Promise” is another major slow ballad highlight, showcasing her vocal range from deep and soulful lows to triumphant highs. “The Child Is Gone”, meanwhile, starts with a brief industrial chug before breaking into a sprawling piano and violin soundscape. Considering this is her debut as she was 18 years old, it’s really interesting to see her recognize declaring adulthood in this way. If the word is going to objectify her and consider her to be a full-grown woman at such a young age, then why not own it and accept it on her own terms? These four tracks generally get more personal and fade from the symbolic nature of the earlier songs, offering a more mature and realistic look at Fiona as a person. The closer “Carrion” fulfills on that “quiet rage” I had mentioned earlier, comparing the loss of love with someone to a decaying corpse of a murdered prey. Although it is somber and its themes are morbid, it sees Fiona relinquishing this person and setting herself free, “You can't intimidate me back into your arms” she proclaims. The symbolism and first-person POV begin to melt into one here, setting up a denser and more thematically ambitious career moving forward.
The influence that this album carries into the modern day is immeasurable in my opinion. The DNA of Tidal lives on in the music of Angel Olsen and Mitski, as well as more mainstream acts like Sarah Barielles and Vanessa Carlton. She established a real blueprint with this one, redefining what a piano and string centered singer-songwriter album could be. She is empowered, dangerous and honest rather than a hapless romantic, she understood the world and her place in it more than the majority of her contemporaries (aside from Sade, again, who is a GOAT as well). This is why her career has spanned this long and she was able to outlive the ‘90s outdoor music festival fodder than she was bred out of. Her sound is timeless and shifts only when she wants it to, not based on the public’s perception of her. In a media scape that was targeted towards male needs, Apple calmly but firmly asserted that it didn’t need to be that way. I’m not crediting her entirely switching the focus, but she was a major warrior in that fight whether she knew it or not. For that and reasons I could go on for eight more paragraphs about, I’m giving Tidal an A+.