“The world is a piece of shit.”
That observation, courtesy of Fiona Apple on the occasion of her first MTV Award, suggests how Apple and Tori Amos, the moment’s prime purveyors of particularly female pop aesthetics, inspire fits of both devotion and derision. It’s the Extreme Metaphor, a trope as excessive as an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo or a Puff Daddy sample, and it’s a key ingredient of their clit-pop, the female singer-songwriter precursor to cock-rock’s second cumming circa Woodstock ’99.
After years of multiclimactic success, the clit-pop boom is now fucked/over, with recent releases from Alanis Morissette, Paula Cole, Meredith Brooks, Indigo Girls and maybe even Amos herself sinking under the current teen-pop and metal-rap waves. Only Jewel and Sarah McLachlan, the most femme of the platinum females, have survived the year without surrendering significant chunks of their mainstream followings. When women-in-rock shifted from movement to trend, the backlash was bound to happen, and maybe it’s necessary for the survival of the species. Would second-stringers Cole and Brooks have scored iconic hits in any other era than Lilith’s girls-with-guitars-are-good epoch?
As evidenced by the latest from Amos and Apple, post-Lilith clit-pop is shifting focus from the shopping center of daily life back to the bedroom of dreams. These albums favor passion, art and cult followings, and leave mainstream sales pitches to the salesmen. Amos’ To Venus and Back was originally planned as a double-live package, then reconceived as half B-sides, and ultimately transformed into a new album with a second disc of concert obscurities and radically revised favorites, most of the latter from ’94’s Under the Pink. The title of Apple’s album-a poem sometimes recited by the singer in concert-says it all and then some: When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘Fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right.
See what I mean about the Extreme Metaphor thing? When you hold your own hand, you tend to lose your grip on reality. Yet Amos and Apple suggest the letting-go process allows you to get in touch with your soul. Or something like that. It’s often tough to grasp what these musical mystics mean, and the ambiguity is both blessing and curse. Unlike Patti Smith, whose classic tunes command a directness her lyrics avoid, Amos and Apple are composers first and rockers second. They don’t always speak in hooks and punch lines, although Apple’s latest packs plenty of both, and Amos has certainly written her share, as that crowd-pleasing “Precious Things” line-“Just because you can make me cum doesn’t make you Jesus”-reminds us within the live disc’s first few minutes. Yet few chart acts of any gender or genre communicate as deeply through their instruments and voices as this pair, whose desire-drenched pianos and pipes seem online with the divine.
To Venus and Back is Amos at her most demanding, and not just because of its 123-minute playing time. The studio disc presents little of the symphonic filigree that sweetened her previous four albums, and the mostly plugged live set is similarly trebly, even harsh. Trip-hop’s growing influence bends the music toward furry, gnarly textures, not laid-back grooves, while the tunes are slight by Amos standards.
That combo bespeaks the new material’s original B-side mindset. “Lust” is a simple piano ballad gone curvy from copious echo effects. “Glory of the ’80s” could’ve been a straightforward rocker, but its gurgling arrangement nearly swallows her vocal. The two-part “Datura” begins with a list of plants Amos grows in her garden recited over a lumbering, tricky time signature, then shifts into a looping shuffle while she chants “dividing Canaan” for reasons that remain mysterious. The only cut with a coherent lyric, “1000 Oceans,” evokes every McLachlan weeper and would be sappy if it wasn’t for the real disappointments of Amos’ career: This is a woman whom radio avoids, yet she fills arenas. When she creates something radio-friendly, it seems more fluke than calculation. And radio still ignores her.
Whereas Venus serves as an obscurely lovey-dovey tribute to Amos’ new marriage, When the Pawn . . . comes across as candid documentation of Apple’s apparently troubled relationship with Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson, who also shot the album’s first video, “Fast as You Can.” Apple reveals severe emotional messiness, yet remains self-aware and perhaps self-defeatingly articulate about her insecurities and shortcomings, which is very New York of her. You can hear the years spent growing up on the Upper West Side, a child of performer parents, melodrama in her blood.
Apple’s arty predisposition and prodigious gifts allow this 22-year-old to wax poetic and make it rock because her delivery is so dexterous and forceful. “Please forgive me for my distance/The pain is evident in my existence,” she pleads memorably on “To Your Love,” adding an additional “distance/resistance” rhyme for good measure. Matching the fluid phrasing of classic jazz crooners and poets to today’s jarring confessions, her dusky alto spews venom as if it was cinnamon honey flowing from her pretty mouth. Apple offers 57 reasons why she can’t be trusted, tells her beloved to “fuckin’ go” nearly as often, and fights with an intensity that conceals wounded love beneath the spiteful barbs. She’s a brainy femme fatale straight out of codependent hell.
Such megamoodiness would be unbearable without a sense of the absurd. So be thankful collaborator Jon Brion produces and orchestrates When the Pawn… with a retrofuturist wit that tickles the singer’s urbane candor. Brion-responsible for much of the instrumental character of debuts by Rufus Wainwright and Macy Gray as well as Apple-references dry Beatle sonics while summoning electronica’s otherworldliness and hip-hop’s street savvy. With its verse, chorus and bridge sporting unrelated rhythms, “Fast as You Can” rivals recent Destiny’s Child and Jordan Knight hits for disjointed weirdness. Here and elsewhere, Apple approaches Amos levels of keyboard mischief, and her self-deprecation is as sharp as her amorous attack. “I know I’m a mess he don’t wanna clean up,” she bebops with newly improved intonation on “Paper Bag.” The whimsy peaks on “A Mistake,” where our heroine escapes the weight of mature expectations with intentional errors. “If you wanna make sense, whatcha looking at me for?” she queries. “I’m no good at math.” Doh!
It isn’t fair to compare Apple’s benchmark with Amos’ stopgap. When the Pawn . . . capitalizes on its uneven predecessor’s strengths, whereas To Venus and Back summarizes the past while adding a tossed-off present. Amos’ reliably wayward discs always get better with age, whereas Apple is still refining herself, her album instantly engaging. Both clit-poppers inhabit islands of mindful, willful adulthood in a fake adolescent sea. Those shallow waters are OK to visit, but here is where I’d rather live, cuz sometimes the world is a piece of shit.