I must have been twelve or thirteen when I first started listening to Fiona Apple. I responded to her work for a number of reasons. I’d begun writing songs myself around that time, and they were of course in no way comparable in quality to her work, but I could actually sing the songs on Tidal when most female vocalists I admired sang in a much higher register than I could match. While I felt that my voice was inferior because of its “unfeminine” deepness, she showed me that, in fact, a non-standard range could be an asset.
I’d never heard someone sing with such seductively raw emotion. I still don’t feel that there are many “pop” vocalists (Apple is frequently described as a pop artist, but it seems that no one can figure out an extant category to place her in–it’s not the best characterization) out there who can match the power and emotion she manages to convey with her voice alone. Although I loved When the Pawn, particularly “On the Bound,” Extraordinary Machine took quite a while to grow on me–the show-tune quality of the album made me uncomfortable and seemed to distract from her vocal performance at times, most noticeably in the title track. “Oh Sailor” struck me as a kind of throwback, however, and I still considered myself a fan. In 2012, when The Idler Wheel came out, I gave it a cursory listen and felt, once again, slightly uncomfortable. I’ve found that there are two types of discomfort I feel when listening to music: one is of the type that means the music is just not and will never be to my taste, and the other is an indication that my assumptions about how music should be assembled are being challenged. Usually, if the discomfort is of the second type, I will grow to love the music and feel that it has s changed my palate for the better. This happened when I listened to Kid A for the first time. It happened when I first heard St. Vincent’s eponymous album. It happened during my first encounter with Bjork’s work. The Idler Wheel now falls into the second category of discomfort. The instrumental spareness enhances the power of her voice. It is her most completely raw album. She does some really ingenious things with melody, often veering into atonality with an amazing amount of control. Her lyrics are often delivered in a syncopated fashion, conveying her feelings of being disconnected and overwhelmed. Her vocal skill becomes quite obvious if you peruse YouTube covers of songs from this album. Even competent singers find themselves going flat and running out of breath. The songs are not easy to hear and they are not easy to sing. Nonetheless, I’ve been listening to “Every Single Night” over and over and over again. As an insomnia sufferer, I relate entirely to this surreal scattering of thoughts. The video for the song is also brilliant, capitalizing on the unreality and disjointedness that characterize the insomniac’s mental landscape. I have been attempting a cover, and I’ve definitely been having trouble. But it’s satisfying when I manage to get it right. I am only sorry it took three years for my palate to be ready for this.