I used to have another blog under another name where I wrote about music. I had just finished writing about Fiona Apple’s three albums in 2011 when it was announced that her fourth album was about to be released. Here’s hoping that right after I post this we’ll hear about an upcoming fifth album.
While we wait for that future album, let’s focus on the current four:
10. Fast as You Can
From 1999’sFirst Single
That gloriously long album title was inspired by critiques of her first album. Apple wrote the song with the intention of communicating in music the mood swings that come along with a relationship. Thus, the tempo and style of the song shifts from section to section. It’s really extremely effective – not only does she successfully capture that feeling, but also the song never feels disjointed. Apple worked with producer and frequent collaborator Jon Brion on this album – he and Apple contributed many of the different instrumental tracks to the record. My wife and I both like this song – which isn’t necessarily a rarity, but it is rare when we’re both listening to the same stuff at the same time. I mentioned earlier that Apple’s singles often fall into two broad categories – longing and loss. Really, there’s a third category which I’ll label “relationships are kind of awful, too.” This song falls into that category.
9. Never Is a Promise
From 1996’s Tidal, Sixth Single
So, Fiona Apple wrote “Never is a Promise” when she was 16. In this interview at Vulture, she wrote the song “after hearing the boy to whom she’d recently lost her virginity express interest in another girl.” What classic song did any of the rest of us write about our high school love life? No, Kate Bush, put your hand down, I’m not talking to you (#35). This falls into the “relationships are kind of awful” category of Apple songs, too. This was the final single from Tidal and it was one of the songs that secured Apple her record deal.
8. Not About Love
From 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, Third Single
?uestlove plays drums on “Not About Love.” Indeed, he plays also plays drums on my other favorite single from Extraordinary Machine. I did not realize he was on either of these songs until the moment before I started writing this, but yeah the drum work on both this and the other song in question is excellent. I was clearly really wrong in my initial statement about there being two major apple song categories because “Not About Love” is the third that falls into the “relationships are kind of awful” category. The lyrics are essentially about the morning after a relationship-ending conversation and the regret that Apple feels about getting into the relationship at all. I think its typical for we humans to fall in love with our image of a person rather than their reality. It’s often pretty disconcerting to discover that the people we’re most intimate with aren’t really who we think they are at all.
From 1996’s Tidal, Fifth Single
“Criminal” was Apple’s biggest (and only) top 40 hit, largely on the back of that video. The lyrics are about a woman regretting using her sexuality to get something she wanted from a guy who really loved her. She feels pretty guilty about it now. Anyhow, this is a song about longing for somebody from the perspective of the person who is longed for (rather than the person doing the longing). Apple says she wrote it in 45 minutes, a thing that seems to be counter-intuitively true for many songs that were the biggest hits of different artists careers. I managed not to see the controversial video (to my knowledge) until this year. I can see why Apple felt like it was a good metaphorical reflection of the song and can also see why so many people objected to it. It certainly got the song a ton of attention. Apple’s career has been a little backwards – she went straight for the big hit album right out of the gate and, ever since then, seems to be (successfully) trying to court more of a cult audience.
6. I Want You
From 2006’s Decades Rock Live, Digital Single
One of my favorite Elvis Costello songs sung by one of my favorite singers? Yes please. “I Want You” is sort of a perfect song for Apple. It’s about longing for somebody that you are the in the process of losing to somebody else (because relationships are kind of awful). The constant repetition of the titular phrase eliminates any possible subtext and Apple brings all of the obsessions and hurt of the song to the surface. This was performed live as part of a celebration of Elvis Costello’s work on VH1 with the man himself on guitar. It proved so popular that it was released as a digital single. If you’ve not heard it before, cuddle up with a photo of somebody who broke your heart and turn up the volume.
I’ve placed all three singles from Apple’s second album in my top ten. I really dig that album, perhaps the most of any of her records. In fact, as good as her singles are, there’s a dozen or more songs just as good spread out across her records. “Limp” is a simply spectacular take down of a lover that Apple is ready to kick out. The chorus (which as you might have surmised from the song’s title is loaded with double entendre) is a thing of beautiful poetic fury. I’ve mentioned this before, but though Apple writes a bunch about loss, longing and relationships that don’t work out, she always comes across as strong as heck. She’s not fragile – indeed, in her own words, she’s an extraordinary machine.
4. Every Single Night
According to multiple source (Wikipedia for one), Apple recorded her fourth album more or less in secret from her record company. Thus, it was a very pleasant surprise in 2012 when she suddenly released “Every Single Night.” Its funny how the brain works. I mentioned in my introduction of this whole mess of a list that I missed out on most of Apple’s work until 2005’s Extraordinary Machine and didn’t really get into her stuff until that album. Well, surprise surprise, my internet journaling habit led me to discover that I wasn’t especially crazy about that album when it was released and, in fact, I didn’t start really digging on Apple until I started writing about her work in 2011 at which point I fell hard for “Love Ridden” and “Get Gone.” That led me to downloading Tidal (which I also really dug) and then immediately after all of that happened, the new album came out. I wrote this all down at the time so now I know it to be true but that’s not how I remember it at all because, I just wrote, its funny how the brain works.
Apple’s brain works funny, too, which is the point of this song. Broadly, it’s about the conflict between heart and brain, but the song is so much more than that. Part of it is about how hard it is for Apple to get to sleep at night due to her internal conflict and thus (I think) she’s structured the song to reflect this sort of insomnia nightmare. It starts with music box lullaby accompaniment but before she can actually get to sleep, the huge pounding drums come in to keep her up. There’s so much more to the song than that but if you’ve ever struggled with insomnia, you’ll likely get it right away. Relationships are pretty awful, even the relationship of your heart and your head.
3. Sleep to Dream
From 1996’s Tidal, Third Single
Setting aside the controversy from her excellent MTV VMA acceptance speech for the video for this song for the moment, this song is just so fricken’ good. Easily my favorite tune from Tidal. She wrote this song when she was 14. Who writes songs this good at 14? Miss Bush, again, please sit down. I know, I know you wrote some of your first songs when you were 13. I mean “how many normal people write songs this good at 14,” not “how many musicians of god-like genius wrote songs like this when they were 14.” Anyhow, Apple also appears to be a musician of god-like genius. This is a song about finding the strength to move on from an unhealthy relationship. Regarding that MTV Speech, she was 19 when she made it and was accused of being ungrateful, as opposed to (you know ) Duran Duran (#15) or George Michael (90) who actually kind of attacked MTV or you know Elvis Costello who wanted badly to bite the hand that fed him. Yeah, those were brave stances, but 19-year-old Apple was being ungrateful for pointing out that awards were b.s., the world was b.s. and even the fact that she existed was kind of b.s. What’s really b.s, perhaps, is holding a young woman to a stricter standard than adult men. But that’s none of my business.
Anyhow, love this song.
2. Get Him Back
From 2004’s Extraordinary Machine, Fourth Single
Everyone comes into new relationships with the baggage from the old relationships. We all know this. For example, I had a bad break-up once and spent nearly a decade dreaming I was going to wake up next to the woman who dumped me even though I was dating somebody else at the time. I was called the names of ex-boyfriends by my then-current girlfriends (and called some of my then-current girlfriends names of exes) many times. Its just the way our brains work. “Get Him Back” – my favorite track on Extraordinary Machine – explores this idea as Apple goes through a series of men, dumping each one until she realizes she dumped somebody that she didn’t actually want to dump. Why did she dump him? she thinks “he let [her] down when he didn’t disappoint [her].” In context of the rest of the song, this suggests she broke up with him because “every other man [she sees]/reminds [her] of the one man who disappoint[ed] [her].” I feel you, Apple. Been there. Hoo boy. But you know, life happens, people do things and you just have to let it go. And she does, in the end, determining that she’s not going to “get him back” by seeking revenge (as she’s implied she’s going to to the men in the previous too verses) but that she’s actually going to make the effort to get this reasonably ok dude back. Anyhow, terrific lyric and great piano work coupled with a fine backing band (?uestlove on drums again). One of my all time favorite songs by anyone. (Also, and I’m just starting to read this right now, here’s an article about Apple’s late-90’s relationship with director PT Anderson and how this song might be about him)
1. Paper Bag
That video is just so charming.
I’m not especially satisfied with how I’ve ranked this whole list but I don’t think I’m ever going to be satisfied with it. Every time I listen to Apple’s songs, I hear thing I didn’t hear before or the words strike me in slightly different ways. Many of her songs sound simple but are really quite complex. Ranking songs is what I do, so I have, but other than my choice for the last single on this list, everything else is kind of negotiable.
That all said, right now this is my favorite song by Apple. It’s about how we perceive people versus how they actually are. Apple longs for a particular man but discovers he’s not who she thought he was. She knows he’s not the person she thinks he is and determines that she’s going to avoid getting in a relationship with him. That, however, doesn’t make the desire go away. She’s going to have to starve herself to get over him and its going to hurt like crazy.
Musically, the piece is a glorious, sweeping old-timey kind of song that highlight both Apple’s piano skill and Jon Brion’s production. Its my favorite single by her at the moment (if not my favorite of her songs).
Coming Soon: Radiohead. Or maybe The Hives.