Still Sullen: Fiona Apple’s ‘Tidal’ Turns 20


Maybe the things we write when we’re 18 years old are worth looking at again. Maybe our feelings in that baby bird stage of adulthood are valid. Maybe we’re developing a narrative at the age, despite not really knowing who we are.  And maybe, if we’re incredibly blessed, what we’re saying at age 18 is giving us a glimpse of the genius that is yet to come. This is all certainly the case for Fiona Apple. The singer and songwriter penned her debut album, Tidal at the age of 18 and today that record turns 20. Released on July 23, 1996 Tidal, for music listeners of a certain “vintage” was one of those records whose power that couldn’t be denied. Even if you weren’t a fan, you could admit you never heard anything like Tidal before. Everybody knew about it, everybody bought it and all done before the era of social media to boot. The buzz on her was just that huge. It also had the good fortune of being released in an era of really terrific female bands and songwriters. Bjork, No Doubt, Tori Amos, Sheryl Crow, Garbage and even Alanis were all having a conversation at the same time that both genders were eating up with a spoon. And no voice in that crowd was as a distinct as Fiona Apple’s.

Part poet, part pain in the ass, Apple’s Tidal at times sounds like a musical journal of an angry girl. Other times, it sounds like a broken heart set to music. But more than that, I think what I responded to then was this girl, this kid, who is 100% telling the truth. The album doesn’t drip with bullshit. It tells it like it is. Take the opening song, “Sleep To Dream”, for example. The first words we the listener hear come out her mouth are as follows;
I tell you how I feel but you don’t care
I say tell me the truth but you don’t dare
You say love is a hell you cannot bear
And I say give me mine back and go there
For all I care

From moment one, Ms. Fiona is letting us know she is not here to play. She has her “own hell to raise” so kindly move your ass.

Being pissed off and everyone around not knowing what’s wrong with you is a very quintessential young person’s experience. Apple explained later that “Sullen Girl” was born from just that.

“Sullen Girl is… complicated for me. It’s about a lot of things. It’s about when I was doing the album and everything was happening all at once and I just felt like ‘Oh my God, what’s going on here?’ The second verse is a… I went through a really hard time when I was a very, very cold person. I didn’t like to be near people. When I was 12, I was raped by a stranger and that’s what this song is basically about, because I felt like everybody in my life thought there was something wrong with me and it was just my wondering ‘was that what changed me?’ […] That was an experience that made me a lot stronger. It taught me a lot about who I am and life. Things happen and you go through pain. It doesn’t have to be such a big deal. It’s like ‘yeah, I was raped.’ It’s over, though. And I learned from it. It’s sad, but good things come out of it, too.”

The next song on the record, “Shadowboxer” was a big radio hit and for many, a first introduction to the artist. While “Criminal” (Don’t worry. We’ll get there) left a bigger imprint in a pop culture landscape, “Shadowboxer” for me is an incredibly haunting and brilliant song that stands alone as some of her best writing. Exhibit A:

Oh, you creep up
Like the clouds
And you set my soul at ease
Then you let
Your love abound
And you bring me
To my knees

It’s a straight up classic and deserves a spot on your 1996 mixtape.

What can I possibly say about “Criminal” that hasn’t already been said? With its infectious hook, gut punch lyrics and Calvin Klein on crack music video, “Criminal” is arguably her signature hit. It’s her “Don’t Speak”, her “You Oughta Know”, her “Stupid Girl”. With lines like:

 Heaven help me for the way I am
Save me from these evil deeds before I get them done
I know tomorrow brings the consequence at hand
But I keep living this day like the next will never come

“Criminal” deserves every ounce of praise it gets, even if the song’s popularity at times eclipses the rest of her incredible catalogue.

When Tidal came out I was 23 and working as an assistant at a PR firm on Sunset Blvd which meant I mainly ordered lunch and answered the phone. The album was given the distinction of becoming our hold music, as dictated by my boss, who was obsessed with all things new. The next two tracks “Slow Like Honey” and “The First Taste” are atmospheric and jazzy enough to fit the bill. But to label them “just another white girl doing Sade songs” is unfair. “The First Taste”, in particular, is a transformative and seductive track that goes just as well with candlelight as it does with contemplation.

As I listened to Tidal as I was writing this, it was hard not to think about my life in 1996. Clueless, broke, new to Los Angeles, on the run from increasingly pesky drug problems and trying to figure out who I was, artists like Fiona Apple were my spiritual advisors. Moody, bewildered and heartbroken, Fiona’s words were identifiable even though I was older, male and gay. Those truths she was exposing at age 18 are universal enough and delivered in such a masterful way, that it didn’t matter. Apple was sharing secrets with me and a lot of them sounded like my own. The last thing that stands out about Tidal is the artistry. Fiona Apple wrote every word on that record herself at age 18. I guess that shouldn’t be a big deal but in an era where Beyoncé credits 50 some odd writers on Lemonade, it is a big deal. Listen, if you’ve got 50 some odd writers telling your story, it’s no longer your story. The art of the solo artist telling their story, on their own is rare and special. Apple was also blessed with a brilliant producer, first class musicians and a label who stood behind her, things that just don’t really happen for new female artists today.

And yet, things have changed. I’m not that much of a bitter, old fart to realize that music is different. That when “kids today” hear the word tidal they think of streaming service. That songwriting and storytelling in music has survived, you just have to dig deeper for it. But it doesn’t mean the things we loved or the way we felt when we were young, fucked up and confused aren’t worth looking at. Tidal isn’t just a time capsule for the pain we felt but a progress report for how far we’ve come and a scrapbook for the things we’ll never feel again.

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