Happy 20th Anniversary to Fiona Apple’s debut album Tidal, originally released July 23, 1996.
Those eyes. Those piercing, all-knowing eyes of pale blue oblivion.
The eyes are what captured and commanded my gaze, as I perused the new CD display at the Tower Records just a stone’s throw from the UC Berkeley campus that sun-soaked East Bay afternoon nearly two decades ago. Not immediately familiar with the name on the jewel box’s spine, I flipped the disc to scan the track listing and upon reading the third track, lead single “Shadowboxer,” the moment of recognition arrived. ‘Right, Fiona Apple,’ I thought. ‘I like that song. And that voice.’ The next thing I knew, I was forking over an Alexander Hamilton for Tidal, an album that I proceeded to play incessantly that summer and beyond.
A classically trained pianist born in New York City to a family full of professional entertainers, Apple managed, with a little help from her friends, to get her 3-track demo into the hands of Sony Music executive Andrew Slater. Bowled over by the convergence of her piano prowess, astute songwriting skills, emotional depth, and world-weary contralto, all of which belied her seventeen years of age, Slater signed Apple to his Clean Slate label, part of The WORK Group, a subsidiary label of Columbia Records. “I couldn’t believe [the demo] was written and sung by a 17-year-old,” a bemused Slater admitted to Billboard in June 1996. “It sounded like a 30 year-old singer who had written a lifetime’s worth of material. I thought someone was playing a joke on me.”
In addition to orchestrating Apple’s recording contract, Slater also served as her manager and producer of her debut album. Released in July 1996, Tidal was the grand manifestation of not only Apple’s natural and cultivated artistry, but also Slater’s conviction in the dynamic songstress’ many talents. Indeed, the 10-track LP was expertly produced by Slater, bolstered by an impressive group of contributing musicians, most notably producer/multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire Jon Brion. But Tidal’s power derives primarily from Apple’s adept piano playing, introspective lyrics, and magnetic vocals, a combination that Slater needed to push Apple to embrace with confidence.
“Honestly, I'm not a very skilled pianist,” Apple admitted during a 1997 Keyboard magazine interview. “I can play my own stuff, obviously better than anyone else can, but as far as other music goes, I'm really not very good. It's hard because...when we were making the album, Andy Slater was always saying, ‘No we have to take it back to what you wrote it on. Back to the roots, that's the only way it's going to sound real.’ And the whole time I was saying ‘But I don't want to play piano on this. I only wrote songs on the piano because it's the only instrument I know. I don't want this to be a fuckin' piano album.’ But Andy kept saying, ‘No, this is how you sound. This is you.’”
Not simply a “fuckin’ piano album,” albeit a beautifully crafted one, Tidal is a profoundly brave and confessional song suite fueled by Apple’s fearless candor and self-possession. Nowhere is this more evident than on the soul-baring “Sullen Girl,” a stark, minimalist composition buoyed by aquatic-themed references throughout, most eloquently articulated in the song’s chorus (“It's calm under the waves / In the blue of my oblivion”). Throughout her career, Apple has openly discussed being raped at the age of 12 outside of her mother’s Manhattan apartment, a life-altering experience, the psychological and emotional aftermath of which she alludes to in the song’s second verse, when she sings “But he washed me 'shore / And he took my pearl / And left an empty shell of me.”
Depending on your interpretation of the plaintive “The Child is Gone,” a somber examination of innocence lost that seemingly functions as a thematic extension of “Sullen Girl,” Apple may be referencing the same experience here as well. Some have latched on to a more literal meaning within Apple’s lyrics, suggestive of the actual loss of a child by way of abortion or miscarriage. Whatever your particular reading may be, this is unquestionably one of Tidal’s most poignant moments.
The soulful, sultry “Shadowboxer” examines the emotional damage inflicted by a fair-weather lover’s penchant for manipulation and mind games. The lover that Apple portrays therein is so inconsistent and conniving that she’s hard-pressed to take him seriously. Instead, she spars, as the title suggests, with an imaginary, intermittent presence that comes in and out of her life whenever he feels so inclined.
Presumably the most recognizable single from the album, thanks in no small part to its controversial video, the Ozella Jones indebted “Criminal” finds the penitent Apple owning up to her misdeeds and infidelity at the expense of “a delicate man,” as she seeks redemption for her sins “before there’s hell to pay.” An act of contrition, to be sure, but the song also seems to double as Apple’s retribution for all of the boys who have done her wrong. Quite remarkably, Apple claims to have written “Criminal” in all of 45 minutes.
“Sleep to Dream,” which includes the first lyrics Apple ever penned, at the age of 14, is an impassioned kiss-off to an unworthy lover with his “head in the clouds” and a grand declaration of self-empowerment, as Apple proclaims in the chorus that “This mind, this body and this voice cannot be stifled by your deviant ways.” The mid-album, back-to-back punch of the seductive, slow-churning ballads “Slow Like Honey” and “The First Taste” is an undeniable highlight as well.
For my money, however, “Never is a Promise” was, is, and will forever be Tidal’s most indispensably devastating track. A heartbreaking ode to a love that remains out of reach, but also a subdued “fuck you” to the guy who’s too naïve to recognize what he’s giving up in letting her go, this was one of the three songs included on Apple’s original demo (the other two songs have never been released). On the strength of “Never is a Promise” alone, it’s no wonder that Andrew Slater signed her without hesitation and vowed to shepherd her career.
Knowing full well that the precociously talented and boldly provocative Apple represented a critical and potentially commercial goldmine, Slater and the label promoted Tidal aggressively, by way of discounted retail pricing and six singles released over the span of a year or so. And it paid off in heavy radio spins, pervasive MTV play, and ultimately, 3 million units sold.
Unfortunately, though perhaps not completely unexpectedly, Apple’s music was often overshadowed by the media’s fixation and scrutiny of her public persona, which was only exacerbated by her infamous on-stage meltdowns. As previously mentioned, the notorious “Criminal” video provided her critics with plenty of fodder for their largely misguided vitriol, with the New York Times referring to her as a “Lolita-ish suburban party girl” and the New Yorker likening her to an “underfed Calvin Klein model.”
Fortunately, as Apple’s career has developed over the past twenty years, critics have found less and less to take umbrage with, forcing them to acknowledge her artistic gifts above and beyond all else. Unlike many of her singer-songwriter peers, though very much like her Sony Music labelmate Sade, Apple has opted for a more methodical, less workhorse-style approach to making music, having released just three long players— each of them excellent and distinctive—during the last two decades since Tidal arrived.
Beginning with Tidal all the way through to her most recent LP The Idler Wheel… (2012), Apple’s music embodies the triumphs of quality over quantity, substance over semblance, sincerity over superficiality. Which is precisely why despite the long stretches between recordings, we’re always eager and grateful to discover her new songs and revisit the old.