Tidal turns 25 this year. I was 16 or 17 when I bought it, after seeing the video for “Sleep to Dream” on MTV Brazil. By the time she won the MTV Video Music Award for Best New Artist in 1997 — and gave that memorable speech — I was already a superfan. I found her brilliant, talented, smart, vulnerable, and unafraid to be a mess. But if you looked at how the mainstream treated her, you would think she was the worst thing to happen to music.
You had writers dismissing her as a “waif” and their readers thrashing her completely, like bullies at high school. And worse, you had female comedians — who should be supporting someone that young and talented — making fun of her, accusing her of being “whiny.” In the American magazines I bought, I read interviews with Janeane Garofalo and Sandra Bernhard calling Fiona a “phony,” accusing her of not being “the real thing.” It feels like medieval times. Imagine if Fiona had begun her career now! She would be rightfully acclaimed from the start.
Time proved the haters wrong (I don’t like the word “haters”, but in this case it’s quite appropriate). Compared to her subsequent albums, Tidal sounds extremely polished, but it’s pretty brilliant as well. The arrangements are elegant and refined, but it’s Fiona’s lyrics — and voice — that stand out.
Kanye West was right to be blown away by “Sleep to Dream,” and so was Bettye LaVette (who named her excellent 2005 covers album I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise). Tidal literally starts with a bang, with the singer going from furious (“I have never been so insulted in all my life!”) to elevated (the vocalizing that ends the song). It was probably easy for critics at the time to include Fiona in the “angry young women” trend…had they stopped listening to the album after the first song. (And Jesus Christ, all that talk about women in music being a niche…)
The Fiona Apple that exposes herself on Tidal (written when she was not even 19) has the same characteristics as the current Fiona Apple, the one who released the most acclaimed album of 2020: raw and unafraid, vulnerable and strong, wounded and fragile. What interests me now is how several songs on Tidal sound like standards, songs to be revered and covered by other artists, younger and older. The masterful “Shadowboxer” evokes bars filled with smoke, the clinking of glasses, and a singer belting out its wounded rhymes: “I was onto every play…I just wanted you.”
Tidal marked the beginning of a glorious partnership between the singer and producer/musician Jon Brion, who produced her masterpiece When The Pawn… in 1999. Here, Brion is just a featured musician, but his jazzy touches and flourishes vibrate all through the album. No wonder he became such a sought-after producer after Tidal (and also a great soundtrack writer).
And of course there’s “Criminal”, the much-discussed hit from the album. Written by Fiona when her label demanded “a single,” the song still reverberates through pop culture, recently soundtracking a hypnotizing scene in the movie Hustlers. And if a lot of people tend to focus only on the song’s first words (“I’ve been a bad, bad girl”), the track as a whole is Fiona in a nutshell: taking the blame (“Help me, but don’t tell me to deny it”), assuming she won’t change overnight (“I keep living this day like the next will never come”) and admitting she’s lost (“I just don’t know where I can begin”). But everything is sung with gusto, with power: the singer takes these negative emotions and owns them. She has owned every aspect of herself in public for 25 years now. Thank heavens for that.