Fiona Apple does not write happy songs. Her songs range from quietly melancholy to rip-your-heart out painful. They are confessional and raw and not pretty. A couple days ago, I heard her live for the first time at the Mesa Arts Center near Phoenix with my best guy friend. We’ve had our share of late nights with gin and tonics, discussing our latest romantic woes and looping Fiona songs. We were long overdue for this concert.
Hearing Fiona Apple live takes gut-wrenching to a whole new level. She does not so much sing the songs as channel them, like malevolent spirits. She moves jerkily, swaying, or tapping her feet, or swinging her hips rhythmically, as if possessed by the lyrics and by the raw emotion they conjure. Even in the recordings, the rawness can’t be completely polished away, but live, the music comes out with growls, shrieks, a not-always-tonal force of pure feeling.
The concert is emotionally draining for me not only because of Fiona’s delivery, and her lyrics, but also because of my long history with her music. I caught on late, by the time her album “When the pawn…” had already been out over a year. I first heard “Fast As You Can” – which happened to be the concert’s dramatic, backlit and strobe-accented opening number – and fell for her completely. Her music got me through some painful breakups and heartache, and I constantly return to and reinterpret her lyrics as my life experience shifts. It’s hard sometimes to identify with Fiona – some of her songs are so tortured that you want no part of them, you look at them from a distance and feel relief at the smallness of your grief by comparison. Other times, her lines summarize your experience so accurately it’s jarring. Take “Used to Love Him”, which she also performed that night as I mouthed along with all the lyrics:
So why did I kiss him so hard
Late last Friday night
And keep on letting him change all my plans
I’m either so sick in the head
I need to be bled dry to quit
Or I just really used to love him
I sure hope that’s it
Late at night, listening to a song like that on repeat, there is no need to say anything else.