To a certain degree, we want our performers to carry the crazy gene. It’s the DNA sequence that makes their persona spectacular—a volatility that can be safely mediated through sounds and images. And yet, the reason that art works is its ability to channel real human experience and relate to general themes of the species. The few that can be both things to most people are duly lionized with the intimate voyeurism an audience longs to practice.
Fiona Apple has built her career on this tension, falling at turns to one or the other side of the equation and leaving long enough stretches of dormancy between projects to keep each round feeling freshly volatile and her audience eager to be reminded of the extremes they might, at times, feel. Pushed (literally in her underwear) before a national audience at 19, Apple played the broken girl with a studied contralto and chip on her shoulder through the end of the ’90s, never capitulating on either the dark complexity of her songwriting or the heroin-chic directness with which it was delivered. Rumors of eating disorders and border drug busts have been enough real-world drama to keep Apple’s image compellingly unhinged, which has in turn made the arrival of 2005’s idler Extraordinary Machine and this year’s extraordinary The Idler Wheel… feel like such a boon. The fact that her four-album catalog has remained so consistent, stretched out over 16 years, is almost mathematically impossible.
But, for this, it made sense that her Friday set at the Palace should draw as much on her back catalog—a surpsisingly deep hit-parade, given the few commercial singles she’s scored and the fact that her biggest, “Criminal,” was conspicuously absent—as material from The Idler Wheel… .
“Fast As You Can” got things started with a wall of back-lit strobes igniting the heavy piano riff. Apple herself only occasionally sat at the grand throughout the set, opting for manic microphone antics while a backing keyboardist covered most of her parts. She cut a bony figure but her presence was anything but frail, stomping, skipping and frantically tugging at her raggy skirt during the set’s one extemporaneous monologue (the crazy gene might have been more generous in this department). During guitarist Blake Mill’s sinister solo in “Sleep to Dream” (which belied his forgettable average-guy-with-a-guitar opening set), she writhed against the piano, later thumping a floor tom in a surprisingly athletic display. Indeed, the up-tempo rockers, driven by drummer Amy Wood, seemed cathartic for her to perform, while songs like “On the Bound” and “Say It Again” found her rocking agitatedly on her piano bench. As a whole, Apple seemed more comfortable centerstage for anthems like “Shadowboxer” or the playful “Extraordinary Machine.”
“How can I ask anyone to love me/when all I do is beg to be left alone?” she sang late in the set, before leaving the stage with a perky “I love you.” It’s a lyric that may encapsulate Apple’s conflicted persona better than any other, leaving her compelling tension unresolved and wanting for an encore that never came.