Editor’s Note: The Albumism staff has selected what we believe to be the 100 Most Dynamic Debut Albums Ever Made, representing a varied cross-section of genres, styles and time periods. Click “Next Album” below to explore each album or view the full album index here.
Released in July 1996, Tidal was the grand manifestation of Fiona Apple’s natural and cultivated artistry, which has come to embody the triumphs of quality over quantity, substance over semblance, sincerity over superficiality in the two decades plus change since her debut arrived. A profoundly brave and confessional song suite fueled by Apple’s fearless candor and self-possession, Tidal’s power derives primarily from its creator’s adept piano playing, introspective lyrics, and magnetic vocals.
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.
A highlight-rich song suite, standouts include the soulful, sultry “Shadowboxer,” which examines the emotional damage inflicted by a fair-weather lover’s penchant for manipulation and mind games. “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.”
“Sleep to Dream,” which includes the first lyrics Apple ever penned, aged 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.”
For my money, however, “Never is a Promise” is 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).
Only three albums (1999’s When the Pawn…, 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, and 2012’s The Idler Wheel…) have emerged from Ms. Apple in the 21 years following her breakthrough with Tidal, but each of these efforts has only reinforced her unconventional yet irresistible songcraft, while emboldening her intensely loyal cadre of fans’ seemingly unconditional devotion.