The summer of 1996 was a peculiar one for Fiona Apple. A new Epic Records signee, the 18-year-old made a sharp and unintentional shift from an exceptionally angst-ridden adolescence into the world of celebrity. Much applauded and misunderstood, Apple found herself at odds with the spotlight borne from her debut album, Tidal. Flooded with witty lyrics and combustible content, the album exposed Apple’s rich, rattled interior world. Twenty years after its July 23, 1996 release, we celebrate Tidal in all its emotionally indulgent glory.
To get the full story of Tidal, you have to fast-forward one year past its release, when Apple delivered the following acceptance speech for best new artist at the 1997 MTV VMAs: “Everybody that’s watching this world, this world is bullshit and you shouldn’t model your life. Wait a second! You shouldn’t model your life about what you think that we think is cool and what we’re wearing and what we’re saying and everything. Go with yourself…And it’s just stupid that I’m in this world, but you’re all very cool to me.”
“Go with yourself.” These three words embodied Apple’s approach, and however stupid she felt, going with herself was what she did — not because it was comfortable, but because it was the only way she could make sense of her own flaws. And it was what landed her in the spotlight on that stage, improvising a speech that would offend some, inspire others, and capture her essence.
Apple’s polarizing persona reveled in its own disarray on Tidal. A heartbroken, hell-bent masterpiece, the album was wrought with frustration that transcended the typical sways of teenage-hood. Tidal was years of self-loathing and post-breakup unrest. Tidal was a sonic dichotomy, an emotional hurricane, and a lyrical implosion that somehow all seemed to flow. And Apple was submerged somewhere in the undercurrent.
While some at the time considered her a post-Jagged Little Pill placeholder, those listening keenly knew that Apple was no follower. Alongside ’90s contemporaries like Aimee Mann, Alanis Morissette, and Tori Amos, Apple would become a heroine praised for speaking her mind. In time, it became clear that her talent wasn’t as closely tied to the sound of the ’90s as some of her peers — and neither was the intensity exhibited on Tidal.
On the Andrew Slater-produced album, solitude, depression, anger, betrayal and the pursuit of misconduct tempts as much as it tortures. On the album’s opener, “Sleep to a Dream,” Apple lashes out at a former lover. “Just go back to the rock from under which you came, take the sorrow you gave and all the stakes you claim and don’t forget the blame,” she sings in this one-sided squabble. Rumbling percussion and paranoid strings grant her biting lyrics a tone to match. “Don’t plead me your case, don’t bother to explain, don’t even show me your face ‘cause it’s a crying shame.” In “Shadowboxer,” the fitful rage on “Sleep to a Dream” slides into a tamer sort of solemnness. Roaring choruses trickle into sobering verses that dig deeper into Apple’s hysteria. She wants to point the finger, but she’s too stuck in the thick of being loved and let down.
More than wrestling with post-relationship residue, Apple tries to reconcile her demons. Ballads like “Sullen Girl” explore a heaviness that exists with or without someone else, but the song points to something darker than one’s own isolation. Addressing a rape that happened when she was 12, Apple finds a metaphor to share the experience and its impact: “I used to sail the deep and tranquil sea, but he washed me ‘shore, and he took my pearl and left an empty shell of me.” Ballads like “Never is a Promise” and “Pale September” make clear that this emptiness has stayed with her while “The First Taste” suggests that she’s ready to start anew. “Criminal,” the album’s most controversial track (accompanied by an also controversial Mark Romanek-directed video) encompasses the album’s most striking outcry: “Help me, but don’t tell me to deny it.”
While some critics passed Tidal off as pretentious or messy, its sales said otherwise. Today, the album has sold 2.9 million copies in the U.S., a number that eclipses her critically acclaimed (and similarly unhinged) follow-up albums When the Pawn…, Extraordinary Machine, and The Idler Wheel….
Although the singer-songwriter’s releases and appearances have grown fewer and farther between over the years, she has stayed true to the fitful, unconventional nature that makes her music timeless. Today, on its twentieth anniversary, we tip our hats to Tidal and the artist who encouraged us to go with ourselves, no matter what the storm brings.