I don’t remember the first time I heard Fiona Apple, but I’m almost positive it was in my sister’s car—just like with Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, and Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark, and even Outkast’s Stankonia. It was probably right around the time I’d stopped shuddering when someone cursed. Fiona’s gutsy loop of “I’m gonna fuck it up again” in “A Mistake” felt a little fiery and a little risky and most of all, cool. It wasn’t until later that I appreciated the brilliant disparity that results from a snide lyric being delivered with a gorgeous trill. Much, much later, I fully understood the weight of a line like: “Oh darling, it’s so sweet, you think you know how crazy / how crazy I am.”
On October 21, I went to see Fiona Apple at the Beacon Theatre. She and guitarist Blake Mills started off the night by scrawling the phrase “Teach Me How to Be Free” on a chalkboard beside the piano. Peering back at her handiwork, Fiona tells us, “That looks like ‘Teach Me How to Toke Free.’ Don’t take a picture if you’re one of those newspaper people! Do that thing, that”—gesturing vaguely until someone offers—“Photoshop!” It is unsurprising that Fiona, who once admitted she would never have owned a phone or a computer if certain men hadn’t bought these things for her, takes a moment to place this particular word.
It is the beginning of an unhinged, fiercely resonant, and devastatingly virtuosic performance. Because this is what Fiona does: she lets you in, way, way in, to those creases of emotion and hurt we rarely access in ourselves—all alongside the flicker of potential danger. Fiona curls herself into a little ball behind her bass drum, asking us earnestly if we know what the organ of Corti is, and part of me wonders: is she okay?
Perhaps the question itself is irrelevant. As irrelevant as the audience member who heckled her during a performance at Portland’s Newmark Theater: “Fiona, get healthy! We want to see you in 10 years!”
“Please keep telling me what to do and watch what happens,” Fiona offers smugly to errant Beacon song requesters. She starts to tell a joke about a duck at a bar in search of nails but quits midway through, realizing the setup was wrong.
Fiona sings only four songs from The Idler Wheel..., the viscerally poetic tour de force that Pitchfork awarded a prestigious 9.0 rating. One of these is the cathartic “Regret,” her voice gutting us with that eminent rasp just on the brink of breaking. In tandem with the biting chorus, “I ran out of white doves’ feathers / To soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth / Every time you address me,” she hits herself with a leather strap. Again, I can’t help but wonder: is she okay?
If okay means slick and sugary and TV-camera-ready, if okay means even-tempered and rosy-cheeked and that flat adjective that is “nice,” then no, she is not okay. We root for Fiona because in her luminosity she spurns the pedestal. She is a little lost and a little broken and a little insane, just like the rest of us. And we thank her for this. The difference, of course, is that we can’t induce spellbound silence with a shuddering alto, or capture happiness quite as precisely in lines like this one: “I looked like a neon zebra shaking rain off her stripes.” We thank her for this too.
And this time around, Fiona has Blake, who holds his own with impressively Bill Frisell-like guitar work, made most poignant in the spectacular Conway Twitty cover “It’s Only Make Believe.” After the lovely “Don’t Tell Our Friends About Me,” Fiona wraps Blake in a long hug. “If you want to be a musician,” she instructs, “be in a band!”
While most of the night is spent stunning us with new blood like the hypnotic “Dull Tool” or the heartbreaking “I Want You to Love Me,” the penultimate piece is the classic “I Know.” Fiona and Blake’s duet is disarmingly pared down, a performance of sad and evocative beauty.
“And if it gets too late / for me to care / for you to find you love me,” Fiona sings, rewriting the original lyric by changing the word “wait” to “care.” It is a satisfying moment of growth: she isn’t seeking this man’s candor any longer—she’s stopped worrying about it. The shift is slight, but it feels triumphant. We all lose it.
Fiona ends with “Waltz (Better Than Fine),” which comes across as a declaration of just how okay she really is. But as the band crests to a close, Fiona is elsewhere. She is trying to remember the name of some song. Audience members chuck out suggestions. The band exits unceremoniously. We’re left in our plush seats, deflated, missing Fiona already, like an old friend we’ve lost touch with, a friend who has told us repeatedly that she wants to be left alone—and we just won’t listen.