Reflecting on Fiona Apple’s Tidal (1996) 25 Years Later

Tidal paved the way for Fiona Apple’s lasting success

Fiona Apple's Tidal album art, a close up of Apple's face
Album art from Tidal

Tidal is the 1996 album from Fiona Apple, and her first studio album. Apple is an American music artist with five studio albums to her name—the most recent, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, was released last year. 

I was first introduced to Fiona Apple in the early 2010s, when I read that she was an inspiration to one of my favourite musicians. From there, I tracked down some of her more popular songs and quickly became a fan.

Composing most of her lyrics and music herself, Apple first began playing the piano at age 8, and began singing her own songs at age 11. After suffering trauma and bullying as a child she became fixated on sharing her art with the world, and poured her soul into music. Apple has a strong, powerful voice that pulls you in with every track.

Tidal, as her first studio album, was released when Fiona Apple was just 18 years old.

From observing interviews and performances, it is clear that Fiona Apple is very self-aware and introspective. This shows through in her work as vulnerability and authenticity. I think it is really valuable when an artist’s personality shows in their work before you even look them up, and I felt that way when I first listened to Tidal.

Tidal, Apple’s first album, was released before I was born. All the same it felt timeless when I first listened to it. I must have been around 15 years old, and it became one of those albums that I go back to now and then. Each song has a narrative or a message that clearly tells you something and you can feel how important it is for Apple to communicate and be understood through her music.

Apple also has an incredibly strong persona off-stage, but not because she is loud or outgoing; she is quiet and thoughtful. In fact, it is almost her lack of words that makes the words she does speak so impactful. At the 1997 VMA awards, after winning ‘Best New Artist’ for ‘Sleep to Dream’ (from Tidal), Apple took to the stage just to call the world of celebrity and the music industry “bullshit”. This defiance and drive is what has always made Apple stand out to me. 

Outside of her music, Apple also generously donates percentages of her licencing profits to While They Wait, a refugee charity based in the United States, and speaks openly and brazenly about advocating for change. Apple uses her music to send powerful messages about strength, vulnerability, and poise. Her vocal energy is high and her backing tracks are busy with heart-wrenching piano and interesting counter melodies. 

At the time and in the months and years after this famous VMA speech, Fiona Apple received a lot of critique and backlash from her words. However, more so in recent years, people seem to be seeing those words for what they are – acknowledgement of the flaws of the industry Apple had become a part of in the wake of Tidal‘s success. This boldness and authenticity comes across in her work and in the free-flowing way she writes her tracks. This has been present since her early work. 

In general, the Tidal album is stunning. Very reminiscent of the music my parents listened to in my childhood, it felt immediately and inherently familiar the first time I heard it. I was mesmerised by the way Apple sang her lyrics so cleanly and with such ease. 

Six singles were released from Tidal, starting with ‘Shadowboxer’, then, ‘Slow Like Honey’, ‘Sleep To Dream’, ‘The First Taste’, ‘Criminal’, and, finally, ‘Never Is A Promise’. The first two singles and ‘The First Taste’ were very similar in style—slow, delicate, and smooth. ‘Sleep To Dream’, the song Apple won her VMA for, brings a little more sass and energy, and the final two singles both take a different approach to sexuality and romantic relationships.

My favourite track from the album is ‘Criminal’, for its rebellious undertones and the way it shows off Apple’s smooth vocals. It has a quirky introduction that drew me in straight away, and the opening vocals are musky and confident. I immediately loved the vibe of the song and started singing along almost straight away. Lyrically, the song describes feeling guilt for using sexuality for personal gain.

Apple stated in an interview with Pitchfork that she wrote ‘Criminal’ in just 45 minutes, out of defiance and a need to prove that she was capable of creating quick hits. The song became the lead single off Apple’s first album. 

If you are not already a fan of Apple, this is a great place to start.  A couple of other personal favourites from the album are ‘Sullen Girl’, for its vulnerability about the misunderstood, and ‘Never Is A Promise’ for the sheer beauty of the track and the tension behind the violin notes.

‘Sullen Girl’ especially seems to offer a deeper insight into Apple’s world. Before a 1996 performance of this song Apple spoke about what it means to her, describing how being misunderstood led to her sinking into her own world. This resonated with me and made the song feel as though it went deeper than some of the other album tracks. 

The final single from Tidal, ‘Never Is A Promise’ has a different energy to it. It feels ethereal and contradictory in its vulnerability to the performative sound of the other tracks. I actually re-visit this track the most from the album because I still find it relevant and comforting. I also love the title.

The lyrics of ‘Never Is A Promise’ themselves feel perfectly crafted to convey very specific feelings about being let down. For example, “never is a promise and you can’t afford to lie”, and, “say you understand, you’ll never understand”, both resonate as feelings of rejection and dejection.

‘Never Is A Promise’ paints a picture of someone who has been painfully betrayed, and who is suffering in a sea of misunderstanding. The idea of being misunderstood is a big takeaway for me from the album in general, especially in ‘Sullen Girl’, as previously mentioned. But this track specifically pinpoints and encapsulates what that feeling is, and how it can cause so much more hurt when it’s coming from somebody close.

Tidal in its entirety is a beautifully honest depiction of Apple’s moods, showcasing her from every angle in an authentic and audibly stunning way. After listening to Tidal for the first time, I ended up racing through Apple’s entire discography, and quickly discovered that she is by no means a one-album artist (although Tidal has always remained my favourite).

Apple continued to write songs in the years after Tidal, although with a very irregular release pattern. Her style feels very natural and she has stated in several interviews that she only writes music when she feels as though it is falling out of her. Over time she has become well-known and she always brings a serene and peaceful energy, but her music tells you all you need to know about the currents under her surface.

In 2012, Apple revealed to Elle magazine that she battles with OCD. After learning this, I went back through Tidal and sure enough found clues there that Apple was struggling to quell certain thoughts about her reputation and her own beliefs. ‘Sullen Girl’ more so than the rest, as an ode to the misunderstood, may have been influenced by this struggle. The more I listened to it the more I could feel the pain coming from within it. It is this pain laced throughout the track that makes its messages so powerful.

Watching The Affair in 2014, I was pleased to recognise that Apple was singing the titles. Every week when I tuned in I was greeted with Apple’s powerful song, ‘Container’. Written especially for the show, it demonstrates the strength of her voice beautifully. 

Although this song was revived from unreleased material specifically to accompany the Showtime series, the lyrics felt very reminiscent of Apple’s work in Tidal. The repeated line, “I have only one thing to do and that’s be the way that I am and then sink back into the ocean”, feels exactly like something Apple would have written about herself. Knowing that about her made these opening titles feel powerful in a way that title music often falls short of.

The general sound resonating from Tidal maintained consistent through Apple’s next three albums, in 1999, 2003, and 2012 respectively, and set the tone for her career. This sound was bold, intricate, and confident. The focus is on strong vocals and these are often accompanied by strong piano that sometimes feels almost bluesy. This changed in 2020 with Fetch The Bolt Cutters

Despite Apple keeping her strength and grit throughout her career, Fetch The Bolt Cutters feels more mellow and pretty. Since 2012, when she released the song ‘Hot Knife’ on The Idler Wheel, I noticed this shift in favour of harmonies and more delicate vocals. ‘Hot Knife’ feels gentler vocally and is haunting where her previous sounds were punchier, and this new exploration of sound continued throughout Fetch The Bolt Cutters. 

In a 2020 interview with The Guardian, Apple revealed that the Fetch The Bolt Cutters track ‘For Her’ was written about Christine Blasey Ford (rape accuser of Brett Kavanaugh). Apple told Laura Snapes “I caught my reflection”, and spoke about how the track reminded her of her own struggles. She said that she often finds this track difficult to sing and for that reason she almost didn’t put it on the album. I find the strength she had to go for it anyway inspiring. I am glad that this authenticity and vulnerability present in so much of Apple’s earlier work is something she stays true to even now.

Tidal, the beginning, reflects the values and the sound that Apple continued to create in her career right up to the present. The introduction of new layered melodies and huskier, almost whispered vocal lines is intriguing and different but doesn’t lose the uniqueness Apple has always brought. The album paved the way for Apple to carve out her place in the music industry as bold, honest, and compelling.

Written by Anna Green

Politics graduate based in the UK. I'm passionate about writing so I can usually be found buried in ink and paper. Proud writer for 25YL!

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