Yes, Fiona Apple’s SXSW Performances Really Have Been Mind-blowing

AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 15: Musician Fiona Apple performs at Pitchfork during the 2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival at Central Presbyterian Church on March 15, 2012 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Earl Mcgehee/WireImage) Photo: Earl Mcgehee/WireImage

If you’d asked me, at almost any point in my life, whether I’d rather see Fiona Apple or the Jesus & Mary Chain … I mean, I’d have picked the latter before you even finished saying “Chain.” But that was not the choice I made last night — when Apple played Pitchfork’s SXSW showcase at Central Presbyterian Church, and JAMC reunited at the Belmont — and, man, am I glad about it. All those raves for Apple’s show two nights ago, her first outside of L.A. in years, those were not puffery or polite support of a much-loved artist. They were reports that Apple is in a zone at the moment, with a kind of quivery manic incandescence that captivates all comers and somehow makes me feel non-silly about describing a performer as “incandescent.” I just compared the way she sang “Extraordinary Machine” last night with the way she performed it years back, on the Today show, and the difference is remarkable; at the moment she seems … hyper-alive, working at a level of intensity that is rare and generally so temporary that you just have to be glad you got a look at it.

Part of it is context. SXSW is, for a lot of acts, an exercise in invulnerability: They race around town playing four or five gigs a day, under the worst and most stressed of circumstances, proving they can Bring It every time. You do not expect to look into their faces and see emotion flickering everywhere; you expect to commend them on having an act that’s hardy and durable, with songs and ideas good enough to stand up to abuse. Apple and her band have that, sure; they’re professionals. But she’s also, at the moment, summoning up something shivering and emotionally raw and filling the room with it. One guy I talked to at last night’s show was there in part because he’d been floored by her performance at Stubb’s, a large outdoor venue that runs up a whole hilly slope, and he said he’d felt almost as if he were “intruding” on some personal thing she was doing on that stage. (She did, after all, wave at the audience and say, “You’re imaginary.”)

Bring that to a small church, with the audience rapt in pews, and it’s … quite incredible. And it featured something I do not expect to see at any other show here, this year or next: Apple’s face and voice actually transforming with the meaning of each line, at a genuinely staggering level of emotional sensitivity — one line an accusatory grimace, the next a sudden open-eyed ecstasy, the next an anguished slump, the next a kind of bitter internal laugh. I am rhapsodizing a little here, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a room watching a singer do this quite so well, bending herself that far to the emotional nuance of every phrase. Some people I talked to found it hard to tell how much Apple was performing and how much she was really just letting herself be an exposed nerve on stage — and while there’s surely plenty of each happening, one important clue might be the fact that she was able to channel a similar intensity through songs written two decades ago as well as the new material. Maybe not with the exact same nervy, tremulous hush surrounding some of her new songs (an album’s planned for this summer) — the hits from the first phase of her career are a little too languorous and moany for that — but the same level of feeling. At the ends of several songs she seemed to blink and return to the room, as if pleasantly surprised to find the audience still there. Then a quick pause for some tea, or throat spray, or to inform us that her hair was held up by “the top band of some baby sweatpants I found in the garbage and washed.” (I have so many questions about this.)

The timing of all this couldn’t be better. It felt like Apple’s name was constantly floating around this winter, suddenly in constant comparison to new acts — she was always being used as shorthand for some rich and apparently much-missed string of performers who would write songs about tough girls and bad impulses that had a frankness and honesty of experience to them, that seemed like they were coming from someone’s gut and mind rather than being pasted together from different styles and aesthetics. Hell, let’s just be specific, because before the show, a party bus passed by the venue blasting a remix of Lana Del Rey’s “Video Games”: Somewhere in the midst of long arguments about that particular artist’s self-presentation, there was an audible uptick in fond feeling for an era when one of Apple’s first big singles could declare, “I’ve been careless with a delicate man,” or, before that, one of Tori Amos’s could mock the “deep thoughts” or someone’s new lover and then announce, “You best pray that I bleed real soon — how’s that thought for you?” Neither of which is about being strong or dignified or edifying to the listener; the thrill of them is just a certain frankness about reality, and the sense of an artist who can cut casually to the core of what life is like. A lot of the acts around us in Austin right now are interested in dreaming up alternate realities, collapsing different sounds and styles from the world around them into something new. But this is another reason Apple’s shows here stand out: They have a distinct and overwhelming sense of taking something that’s going on inside her and giving it form, filling up a venue with it, letting it seep into the listener.

Maybe that’s a good way to talk about Grimes, who played a slightly rocky set a little later on the church bill. It’s the project of Montreal-based singer/producer Claire Boucher, who makes airy, headphone-listening synth-pop and then covers it in layers and patterns of her peeping, reverb-soaked voice. On the surface of things, her music has a lot of the qualities we associate with Del Rey: It pulls ideas and influences from worlds as different as Canadian industrial music, pristine Korean pop, eighties synths, and the Internet; it can conjure up a different, more abstracted reality than the one I’m sitting in. But there are weirdly ineffable reasons that Visions, the newest Grimes album, is making strong connections with listeners, ones that go far beyond Boucher’s adoption as a kind of Internet style mascot. (She looks roughly like a crust-punk Gelfling might.) There’s something about her music that feels private and internal — as if the music playing in someone’s head in quiet moments could immediately become audible, and be danced to. And it’s all shot through with rich feelings and rich ideas. The video for her terrific single “Oblivion” helped make some of those ideas concrete: Watch it, think about how much of the song is built from Boucher’s voice, and think about how that voice fits into the world you’re seeing around it, and whether that voice is private and internal or public and external or both — that’s the closest I can get to explaining what’s so striking about it. Or I can just refer you to the showcase organizer who tweeted that “Oblivion” might be some generation’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and my sense, upon reading said tweet, that for whatever small number of people that is true, it will be very true.