The audacity of the new Fiona Apple makes me so happy, because I can imagine what went on over at her record company when they heard it and realized there was absolutely nothing they could do about it, nothing at all they could say, no way at all to nudge her towards something a little more comprehensible to them. She’s immune to the usual label nonsense because what she’s up to is so far beyond the way they think and they can’t even start to tinker with it. What advice could they give her? It was like that on the last album also. I was at Sony at the time, although not on the side of Sony that Fiona is tied to, and the Jon Brion mix of the album simply was baffling to a lot of people over there. Someone described it to me as “circus music,” and I suppose that’s what it sounded like to them (it’s not the same people at Fiona’s side of Sony anymore), like some hurdy-gurdy indulgence, when of course it was a masterpiece, and I don’t say that about many other albums from this century. They asked her to go back and revise it somehow, but it was really unrevisable: the “difficulty” of it, such as it is, is built in. It’s tamper-resistant. The end result was maybe a fraction less great than the Brion version, but certainly great enough, and there was nothing the label could do at that point except release it. They put her through all this unnecessary misery, and delays, and for what? It was always going to be a Fiona Apple album, and they had to live with it in the end.
This new one has been sitting around a while also, while her label went through some restructuring — the usual corporate mishegas — but my guess is that when the new team was in place and had a listen, they figured. oh, she has a following, and they must like things about her that we don’t quite grasp, so let’s just put the thing on the schedule. Again, this is my guess, based on what I know about some of the people over there. Because there’s no contemporary commercial context for Fiona Apple except the context of Fiona Apple; her music is all angular and jagged in an almost-jazz way, and the emotion is raw and out front, and sometimes it sounds as though it was produced in a junkyard on old tossed-out kitchen appliances. Nothing about it is smooth or slick or pop-as-we-know-it, if that means “Call Me Maybe” — a very, very cute song with clear pop antecedents going back to Marcie Blaine and Shelley Fabares pining over Bobby or Johnny Angel, only more forward, like “here’s my number, idiot” — or any of the other girls (Katy, say) prancing around on the radio. The closest Fiona comes to pop-sex-metaphor is when she compares herself to a “Hot Knife,” but that song is constructed so non-pop: Fiona and her sister Maude Maggart spiral layer on layer of vocals over ominous tribal drums and fleeting shards of piano, making it one of the oddest girl-group records since The Tammys’ “Egyptian Shumba.”
The whole album (you can look up the title; it’s really long) is exciting because without meaning to be, I suppose, it’s defiant, and messy and complicated. It’s the best new album I’ve heard this year (confession: I don’t listen to that many new albums these days, but still…), and one of the few I’m going to keep going back to. Everyone who makes records is called an artist, and that’s more and more of a joke when so much music is processed through a rigid hit system — nothing intrinsically wrong with that; Motown was a hit system also — but Fiona Apple does what true artists do: fascinate, aggravate, draw you in and shake you up. She does anything she wants.