March 27th, 2012 1:00am
This Mind, This Body And This Voice
Fiona Apple @ Bowery Ballroom 3/26/2012
Fast As You Can / On the Bound / Paper Bag / A Mistake / Anything We Want / Valentine / Sleep to Dream / Extraordinary Machine / Every Single Night / Carrion / Criminal / Across the Universe / It’s Only Make Believe
Nitsuh was right. Fiona Apple, always a great singer, has stepped up her game. After witnessing this performance, it is hard to imagine that any other vocalist alive and working today can match her in this moment when she has merged her existing craft and control with a raw ferocity and power that was held back earlier in her career.
I could hear the difference from the start, as she sang the verses of “Fast As You Can” with a new type of intensity – you could feel the tension in her jaw and neck, her tone was the sound of a cold stare. When she got to the “you’re all I need” part of “On the Bound” was where the new phrasing really kicked in, with her voice shredding as she went on past the soulfulness of the studio recording to unrestrained, mournful frustration. My jaw literally dropped and I felt a sudden, deep concern – not just for her voice, which could easily be damaged from this sort of self abuse, but for her well being, because even if she was just acting out an emotion from over a decade ago, her approach was so method that it registered as pure, unguarded and utterly devastating heartbreak.
There is something different about Fiona Apple now, and it seems largely physical in nature. She is still extremely skinny, but now appears buff and wiry, suggesting that she has spent a lot of the past half decade hitting the gym and mastering yoga poses. This physical strength changes the way she moves and carries herself. When I saw her six years ago, she still came across as small and frail, as if she could just float away on a light breeze. That wispiness is gone, replaced by a commanding presence that carries over to her voice, which has become more stern and aggressive. This was most apparent in “Sleep to Dream,” which once seemed like a girl’s fantasy of wielding power over someone who has underestimated and wronged her, but now sounds like a grown woman tapping directly into a righteous fury. Her body language was taut and severe; she looked genuinely intimidating.
The three new songs in her set were outstanding and immediately appealing. “Anything We Want” was particularly exciting, with a taut, highly rhythmic arrangement that reminded me a bit of Spoon’s approach to tension and atmosphere. “Every Single Night” was more wounded and brittle, with a refrain that jacked up the raw nerve intensity of her best work.
Just as the more assertive and despairing moments in her songs were pushed further than before, her gentle, sweet and lovelorn moments were similarly intensified. “Paper Bag” was largely unchanged but somehow more gorgeous; “Extraordinary Machine” retained its whimsy while coming across as more assertive and emphatic. The Beatles and Conway Twitty covers at the end of the set were showcases for the raw beauty of her voice; the former approaching blissful contentedness in its chorus and the latter displaying her mastery over drama and sentimentality.
I would typically include an mp3 of one of Apple’s old songs as part of the custom of this site, but it seems wrong in this case, as her studio recordings don’t capture the essence of what I heard in this set. The songs are all of the highest quality, but her performance was on another level. Aside from the new numbers, I knew all of these selections backwards and forwards, but Apple’s phrasing was so fully in the moment that she could truly surprise me with variations on every line without warping her melodies or changing the character of the song. I desperately want her to release a new live album from this tour. I also want to hear other songs from her catalog sung with her new approach – “I Know,” “Red Red Red,” “Shadowboxer,” “Never Is A Promise,” “Not About Love.” Apple’s song selection seemed very deliberate, though, with some themes about screwing up and moving on recurring through the set. All through the show I found myself wondering what changed for her, what pushed her in this direction. The songs she chose to play may give some hint of what got her to this astonishing new place.