Why was a 12-year-old boy captured by an album that seemed almost wholly obsessed with female sexual confession? Did it have something to do with my isolated childhood, or did it have more to do with the confusion surrounding my own impending sexual awakening? Perhaps these questions are futile. To generalize about why any one piece of music would appeal to any one person, is a difficult task to reconcile retrospectively.
Still, there is something deeply moving about Apple’s first release – an album fused with intricate rhythms, and righteous piano playing. Though only 18 years old at the time of production, Fiona Apple’s Tidal is a stark, brutal, and often beautiful portrait about a young girl’s physical and emotional growth. The opening track, “Sleep to Dream”, professes this clearly. “Don’t even show me your face, don’t bother to explain”, “go back to the rock from under which you came”, “I’ve got my feet on the ground”, and “my own hell to raise”, barks the frustrated teenager. Time and again, throughout the album, and sometimes, within the very same song, Apple reaches the brink of personal resolution, only to do a complete 180-degree turn on herself – encapsulating the fickle nature of adolescent decision making.
At other times, she replaces her contradictory outlook with conflicted helplessness. In “Sullen Girl’ for example, the artist relays the traumatic experience of being raped at the young age of 12. She wrestles with the burden of her despair and isolation, quietly hoping to be saved. Anchored by its smooth sonic landscape, and her restrained voice, it is very easy for one to grow engrossed in Apple’s intimate narrative. With its opaque and painterly lyrics, “it’s calm under the waves, in the blue of my oblivion” – “Sullen Girl” is able to elevate itself from a simple retelling of sexual abuse (i.e. Tori Amos’ “Me and A Gun”), and instead opens itself up to a variety of interpretations. For me, the song was about grappling with the weight of my desires, for my mother it might have been a song that captured the loneliness of depression, and I am sure that for many other listeners, it was about finding the courage to accept their silent anguish.
Elsewhere, Apple tackles female exploitation, as is evidenced by “Criminal”, a lavish track that is ambivalent about the tension between exploiting one’s self sexually, and protecting what is sacred. And despite her young age (and innocence), her breathy Nina Simone-style vocals echo a maturity and understanding of a woman twice her age.
By the end of the record, Apple is still teeming with unresolved questions. She wants to “walk away” from her “decaying” relationship, but she equally finds herself wanting to “save” the person that she has grown to love. It was this sort of confusion, this inability to let go that had me so engrossed with Tidal. At 18, Apple was staring back at me from the other end of childhood, warning me of the pitfalls that were yet to come. Nevertheless, her delivery assured me that I would survive, even if it meant the journey ahead would be wrought with puzzles, and perhaps even a sense of bewilderment. Yet, for all of the difficulties, there was also a feeling throughout Tidal that echoed the excitement and discovery that the future would bring.
Looking back now as an adult, I realize that the album played a vital role in my development. It was a continuous source of comfort, for which I will be forever grateful.