Criminal and beyond: Fiona Apple’s evolution

Pub date September 7, 2012

You could say Fiona Apple belongs to an endangered species. One of the heavyweights in a lineage of 1990s major-label iconoclasts, dedicated to the conceptual potential of the album format, (Bjork, Spiritualized, PJ Harvey, Nine Inch Nails) Apple has built a 15-year career on making approachable, yet arty, pop music with indie-label integrity, and an undercurrent of fringe appeal.

After making a big splash with the sultry music-video to her first hit single, “Criminal” (1996), she shrewdly abandoned any MTV-vixen ambitions, in favor of foregrounding her musical and lyrical ability, and her remarkably versatile, jazz-inflected vocal range; as a result, she’s one of the few artists of her generation to transition from stardom to cult status, and not the other way around.

Taking her sweet time between albums, Apple has also proven herself to be one of the more elusive singer-songwriters of her time. Released earlier this year, The Idler Wheel... marked the end of a seven-year hiatus, and in testament to her increasingly highbrow rank in the music world, it’s the most difficult, demanding work of her career thus far.

On Tuesday, Apple will return to San Francisco (she played Oakland’s Fox Theater earlier this summer) as she graces the Warfield stage with her bold new material, and (presumably) a retrospective of the equally distinctive records that came before. Read on for a rundown of Apple’s artistic progression throughout the years; each of her four albums marks a watershed, in an ever-changing, ever-complex musical evolution.

from Tidal (1996)

The album, the single, and the video that started it all. A story of the power and persuasiveness of female sexuality in a world full of horndogs, the video was right on mark, lyrically. Musically speaking, it’s a knockout, simmering with jazzy nuance, yet powering forward with the hearty chug of a great rock song. Producer Jon Brion’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” organ is applied liberally, (foreshadowing his increased presence on her next record) and the whole thing culminates in a funky, two-minute jam session, as unnecessary and impractical as it is generous and viscerally gripping. Singles like this don’t make their way to MTV anymore.

“On the Bound”
from When the Pawn… (2000)

Largely a defensive gesture against the sexed-up image generated by her MTV breakthrough, When the Pawn… is the record which firmly prioritized Apple’s art over her public persona. It’s the album that established her as an enduring musician in control of her own destiny, instead of a flash-in-the-pan curiosity, tethered to the ‘90s like Alanis Morissette. Opening track, “On the Bound” announces her intent forcefully, bolstering her earthy, overtone-rich vocals with a muscular piano riff, and beautifully layered production from Brion. When the Pawn… found Apple’s songwriting and vocal maturity growing into themselves, and dispelled any notions that her debut was just some teenage fluke.

“Red Red Red”
from Extraordinary Machine (2005)

If When the Pawn… found Apple transitioning from pop wunderkind to serious musician, Extraordinary Machine announced her artistic integrity like never before. However, the album’s actual content is largely upstaged by the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-esque story of its creation. Initially produced by Jon Brion in 2003, the LP was scrapped by Epic Records, who wanted a Tidal retread, and expressed ambivalence surrounding its marketability. After re-recording from scratch, with a team of new producers, Extraordinary Machine finally saw an official release in 2005.

While not a game-changer to the degree of When the Pawn…, the record continued Apple’s bold evolution, sporting thicker arrangements and production, and a heightened emphasis on electronic textures. Above are two versions of “Red Red Red.” First is Brion’s production: dynamic, and hard-hitting, in contrast with the relatively muted, Brian Kehew-produced rendition that made the final cut. In the end, the narrative behind Extraordinary Machine’s tense creative process significantly shaped Apple’s current image as an elusive, Kate Bush-ian perfectionist.

“Left Alone”
from The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (2012)

Gone are the cascading strings and richly textured compositions. Bone-dry, thorny, and more challenging than any other record she’s made, The Idler Wheel… is Apple’s King of Limbs moment. With her piano placed squarely in the center, the album’s production bears the simple sound of a band playing together in a room. This sparseness highlights Apple’s jazz tendencies more effectively than ever.

While the ornate, studio-sorcery of Extraordinary Machine never denied her vocals the ability to soar, The Idler Wheel’s emphasis on empty space puts the nuances, cracks, and overtones of Apple’s mighty voice under a microscope, imparting a level of vulnerability we’ve never heard from her before. “Left Alone” showcases the striking versatility of Apple’s pipes as well as any other track in her repertoire.

So, what’s next? Will Apple continue down the path of unadorned, austere textures introduced by The Idler Wheel…? Or, will she pull the rug out from under her loyal fanbase yet again, and embark on yet another daring reinvention? This uncertainty is one of the most compelling reasons to watch Apple: one of the shrewdest, most enterprising singer-songwriters of her time.

Fiona Apple
With Blake Mills
Tues/11, 8pm, $62-72.50
982 Market, SF
(415) 345-0900