Fiona Apple McAfee Maggart — whose full name is only slighter shorter than the title of her brutally good new album — was 19 when she first scared the ever-loving heck out of us. She writhed, thrashed, a perilously thin piano-pounding precursor to lit femme fatale Lisbeth Salander. No dragon tattoo for Apple, just angry rhythms, wild eyes and lyrics that whiplashed from coy sexuality to sheer disdain for the exes in her life.
You could also think of her as Taylor Swift's brainier, gloomier big sister. An anti-pop hero with serious love scars, Apple, now 34, has made four albums in 16 years. She doesn't need limelight to live. Her reclusiveness is legend; during her breaks, she'll do a live gig, a cameo, but mostly she vanishes. Seven years passed before she released her latest album, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.
And yet, there are lots of us who remain, despite the absences, intrigued with Apple.
(By the way, everyone's teasing about the title, but don't forget her second album was called When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right.)
Blowhard titles aside, Apple is a much more minimalistic artist now; 1996 debut hit Criminal ("I've been a bad, bad girl...") sounds relatively robust compared with Idler Wheel's opening track, Every Single Night, which is quietly contemplative, a baby lullaby about butterflies. That is, until the chorus, a yelping out-of-nowhere chant.
Apple's music is meticulously layered, allowing you to pick up new wrinkles many listens later. Her piano work has always had an acid-jazz burn; Left Alone is like the Snoopy theme on LSD. She unplugs a bit sonic-wise on this record, but that doesn't mean it's quiet, with percussion ranging from looming kettle drums to knee slaps. The song Periphery sounds like angry women stomping — or shredding something? — all to the feel-bad sentiment of the line "I don't even like you anymore at all."
As for her lyrics, they're typically mysterious, wildly emotional and always open for debate. Werewolf lets us know this isn't the same old Apple. She admits to an ex that she screwed up too: "I could liken you to a shark the way you bit off my head / But then again I was waving around a bleeding open wound." The 10-track album ends with the cool wordplay of Hot Knife, which has a delirious "Row Your Boat" in-the-round form. "If I'm a hot knife / He's a pad a butter / If I get a chance I'm gonna show him / He's never gonna need another / Never need another."
For the most part, though, dudes are in trouble. A la kindred spirit Swift, Apple prefers to date high-profile men: magician David Blaine, Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson, hipster writer Jonathan Ames, who is honored, no-so-discreetly, with a song called Jonathan. Swift comes at her exes with pop hooks and big sales (similarly, Swift has a song called Dear John, about John Mayer). Apple, on the other hand, carves up former beaus with much sharper, sophisticated equipment. Accept your horrific fates, gentlemen. Oh, and thanks for the sacrifice.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.