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The Fiona Apple trilogy
An analysis of how Fiona Apple's three studio releases work as a single, three-part musical journey through heartbreak, loneliness and love

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...

Abstract

The most extraordinary thing about Fiona Apple may be her warm, deep and textured voice. It may be the way her lyrical and musical talents evolved to allow for more complex music and lyrics over time. It may be how she is simultaneously able to write alarmingly personal and revealing lyrics and yet remain alarmingly mysterious. It may, in fact, be a combination of all of these things. There is, however, one aspect of her music that remains largely undiscussed and unanalyzed.

The way in which her three full-length studio albums are ordered and structured provide for fascinating contrast.

First, we must examine the musical and lyrical sophistication of each album. She was quite young -- a teenager, even -- when she composed much of the music that found its way onto Tidal. The result is an album that sounds as though it may have been written and composed by a young person -- an exceptionally talented young person, but a young person nonetheless. Her musical ability is no less evident on tracks such as Never is a Promise as it is on music from later on in her career, but the album lacks the musical complexity that would follow on later albums.

When the Pawn... was an exercise in musical experimentation. She allowed her jazz influences to shine through far more strongly than she previously had. She also began to take more musical risks, crafting songs with less orthodox melodies such as "Fast As You Can." She was also pushing herself further lyrically; while she opined about spurned love on Tidal with "then I say give me mine back and go there for all I care," When the Pawn... provided more thoughtful lyrical gems such as "only kisses on the cheek from now on, and in a little while we'll only have to wave."

Extraordinary Machine, then, was her most ambitious and experimental album to date. In it, she flirted with rock, jazz and ballads, as well as a more pop-friendly sound. It took years to create, record and release, and was held back and re-recorded at her own insistence. It is, arguably, the album she was always destined to make.

It is easy to view these three albums as a trilogy, a troika. None would exist without the other, and together they seem to tell a story of a person who has become decreasingly hostile towards the world at large over a lengthy period of time. It is a record of the process of making peace with the establishment. It is a coming of age story, one that only Fiona Apple could tell.

If you have the means to do it (such as an automatic disc changer), I wholeheartedly suggest listening to all three of her albums in succession without stopping. This may be something best suited to a long road trip or other situation during which you may be inclined to listen to entire albums in one sitting.

Before I delve into this any further, I want to acknowledge that I have indeed noded her three albums elsewhere. Those writeups were about the albums as they stand alone, which they clearly do very well. This writeup is about the whole, which is arguably more moving and more incredible than the mere sum of its parts.

Thesis

Fiona Apple's three albums, Tidal, When the Pawn... and Extraordinary Machine can easily be viewed as a three-part story (that is, perhaps, semi-autobiographical).

This is proven by the fact that the three albums seem to suggest continuity and progress in terms of specific events, emotions and maturity, as well as the fact that all three albums seem to have a common structure.

Act I

Tidal begins and ends with a high amount of anger. It mellows out in the middle, and on its own it seems to tell the story of someone who just can't let someone else go. She starts out bitter, contemplates her situation for another eight tracks, analyzes various causes and effects of said situation, and concludes with an emotional purging of the one she feels has wronged her. Her dismissal of the individual is, at the album's beginning, more tepid: "I've got my own hell to raise." There is little doubt of her meaning by the end, as she declares "My feel for you, boy, is decaying in front of me like the carrion of a murdered prey."

The middle eight tracks are perhaps the most interesting; she is analytical about matters including her past, her loves and her personality. It appears as though she is trying to reconcile the current state of affairs with the way things were; she is trying to make sense of the present using the past.

In the end, though, she is confident that she will prevail over her demons.

Round one: Fiona. She has put "someone else" out of her life, though she has done it by burning bridges and amid a great deal of bitterness and hostility. While the album's end may feel somewhat empowering, this is probably not the case. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to the dark side...

Act II

Much like Tidal, When the Pawn... opens with a piece asserting her independence and the change in her life. It seems to pick up right where Tidal left off; the first album ended with an assertion that things were about to change and get better. The second opens with the declaration: "All my life is on me now, hail the pages turning." Much like she did in Tidal, she then proceeds to analyze her past and whatever problems she had with those who were either in her life or are in her life at the present moment. Things don't turn out quite as well in the end this time, however, as she has resigned herself to not being the one that person wants at the moment. This is something that breaks her heart, but she loves him enough to wait for him.

This album also has 10 tracks, and just as Tidal's middle eight tracks posed some analytical observations about her past and the effects it may have had on the present day, When the Pawn...'s middle eight tracks do the same. Some of the angst she exhibited so openly on her first album returns during these eight tracks, but in a somewhat more controlled fashion. She does not hesitate to mock previous lovers, nor does she hesitate to speak frankly of emotional issues that arose in previous relationships.

When the Pawn... does not end well for our heroine. While she has accepted her fate, it is not the ideal situation for her. Acceptance of said fate does not allow her to end this chapter on a particularly triumphant -- or even satisfied -- note. There is, nonetheless, nothing she can do. The one she loves loves another, and she must wait by the sidelines for the day when he realizes he really loves her.

If it ever comes.

Act III

Feeling depressed after "I Know," possibly the most heartwrenching song of all time? Cheer up. Extraordinary Machine opens with the title track -- the only title track Fiona Apple has ever released. It is upbeat, cheerful and quirky. She is as assertive as ever, but without the bitterness we may have come to know and expect from her previous album-openers. She seems to have acquired a wisdom that betrays just how angsty she was two albums ago. She is now apparently wise beyond her years; this is evident both at the album's beginning and at its end, when she declares herself to be "better than fine" and offers some positive philosophies for living.

There are a great many positive references and metaphors throughout this album; she alludes often to things occasionally being problematic, but that things will turn out fine in the end. Even the middle eight tracks reflect this on this album; she seems to be saying "Yes, I made some stupid mistakes, but there's no sense dwelling on them."

It is unclear how much time has passed since the end of When the Pawn... before the beginning of Extraordinary Machine. While we know exactly how long it took for the album to be released, the time lapse between the two chapters of the story is more ambiguous. One can assume it was a reasonably long period of time because of the extent to which she has matured from one album to the next.

The ending of this album is particularly important because it represents her emotions coming full circle from the beginning of Tidal. "Sleep to Dream" was, as mentioned, chock full of so much angst that it might be viewed as making emo music look sort of tame. "Waltz (Better than Fine)" is a much more positive song that encourages others not to worry about things they can't fix; they should, rather, take solace in the fact that things tend to work out in the end.

Conclusion

Fiona Apple's albums can easily be interpreted as a three-part coming of age story due to their common theme of maturity, common structures and increasing complexity.

It is obvious that the albums were not marketed in this way; they may not even have been intended as a three-part story. It may just be the way things turned out. It's quite easy to make a very general comparison between the albums and classic coming of age stories such as the Star Wars Trilogy; their protagonists evolve as they mature and each come to terms with reality. This manifests itself in their respective losses of innocence. While it goes without saying that Star Wars is itself a nod to a very classic archetype of stories such as this, it is perhaps the most recognizable when it comes to a modern audience.

Appendix

 

It probably goes without saying that I grew up listening to Fiona Apple. Tidal came out when I was 11 and my parents gave it to me for my 12th birthday. I got When the Pawn... for Christmas two years later and bought Extraordinary Machine last year.

It's never ceased to amaze me; she puts out whatever I need to hear at that point in time. I was discovering angst at 12 and knee-deep in it at 14. At 19, I first heard a leaked copy of "Extraordinary Machine" (the song). I listened to it constantly; it was the song I'd always needed to hear.

It wasn't until I started thinking about the patterns mentioned in this essay that I considered that each of her albums has had at least one song I've needed to hear during each of those three parts of my life. When I was 12, I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I was probably never going to fit in in the conventional sense, that boys wouldn't be fighting over me and that I was generally thought of as weird. But I had Fiona, and Fiona had "Sullen Girl," and I somehow felt understood.

Then, at 15, I was dealing with the fact that I was not romantically desirable at all, not even by the few guys who seemed to take any interest in me whatsoever. And when I would fall for someone who didn't want me, I had Fiona, and Fiona had "I Know."

It's hard to describe what state I was in at 19, save to say that I was definitely in a state where I could do with being told that I was an extraordinary machine and that "if there was a better way to go then it would find me." And I had Fiona, and Fiona had a group of devoted fans who, thinking her record label had shelved her album due to its supposed "unmarketability," gave me "Extraordinary Machine."

I was 12 when I first put a Fiona Apple album into my CD player and, frankly, had no idea what to expect. It contained a girl who was angry, perhaps justifiably so, and who had no other release than song. When I put her third album into my CD player for the first time, it was astonishing to hear how it contained a woman whose cries of bitterness had turned into songs of joy.

"No, I don't believe in the wasting of time,
And I don't believe that I'm wasting mine."

Thank you, Fiona.

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