If a track released earlier this month is any indication, it’s entirely unlikely that 32-year old Fiona Apple will ever give us another full-length album. “So Sleepy,” recorded as part of a project for Dave Eggers’ literacy nonprofit (826), was written by children in a songwriting workshop. “I’m a gummy bear/I stand up on the chair/Then I start to dance/to dance/to dance/dance,” Apple growls over an arrangement fit for a Swiffer Sweeper commercial.
The song is jarringly catchy, and is the latest in a series of sporadic, under-the-radar, uncharacteristically airy output we’ve seen from the musician since she released Extraordinary Machine in 2005. And as she’s made her slow but steady departure from the stuff of legendary angst, she’s grown less prolific. Her songwriting has long begun screeching to a halt; she now appears primarily on fundraising efforts and other people’s albums. She performed with Jon Brion at a Haiti benefit in January and has been working with Margaret Cho for Cho’s upcoming album.
A palpable shift occurred somewhere between When the Pawn… in 1999 and Extraordinary Machine in 2005, an album whose official release was threatened and postponed a number of times by creative squabbles between Apple, Sony and producer Jon Brion. Lyrically, the album lets feelings of boredom and contentedness seep through her trademark regret and vindictiveness. “If you don’t have a date/Celebrate/Go out and sit on the lawn and do nothing/’Cause it’s just what you must do/And nobody does it anymore,” she sings on “Waltz.”
And then there’s the video for Extraordinary Machine’s “Not About Love,” which makes up one half of her collaboration with prankster comedian Zach Galifianakis. (The other half is her appearance on, of all things, a comedic hip-hop track called “Come Over and Get It (Up in ‘Dem Guts)”). In the video, she wards off giggles as Galifianakis lip-synchs her words: “This is not about love/’Cause I am not in love/In fact/I can’t stop falling out/I miss that stupid game.”
When she appeared on The Late Show with Craig Ferguson in 2006, Apple looked softer, was remarkably animated and grinned sheepishly throughout the interview. “How are you going to write now that you’re happy?” Ferguson asked. “I only write when I’m angry or sad or something, because that’s when I just have to write,” Apple told him. I only will work if I absolutely have to. If I’m having a good time and I’m happy and things are going really well, why would I wanna stop what I’m doing to go and write at the piano?”
If Apple’s relationship with author Jonathan Ames bursts into flames, she’s young and talented enough to use it as fuel for a choleric comeback. But until that happens, she can remain contentedly subdued beside the shadow of her furious former self, and we can find new music to backlight our wit’s ends.