“What wasted unconditional love/ On somebody who doesn’t believe in the stuff” goes the stinging refrain of Fiona Apple’s “Oh Well.” The knee-jerk reaction is that it is a song of vengeance, a takedown of a cold-hearted former lover by a songwriter with a bully pulpit. But what Apple manages in this song is something more multi-faceted and heartbreaking than that. She certainly gets her shots in, but you never feel for a moment that it is any consolation for her.
Jon Brion certainly felt that emotional pull right off the bat. ”I cried the first time I heard her play this,” Brion said in a New York Times article in 2003. ”We were at Ocean Way, Sinatra’s old studio, and I just put my head down on the table and cried.” Yet such was the tortured history of Extraordinary Machine, the album that included “Oh Well.” The song wouldn’t be released until 2005 and Brion, who shepherded the project in its early stages, wouldn’t be around to produce it.
It eventually fell to Mike Elizondo to produce the track and most of the album after some combination of record company interference and Apple’s reticence led to the delay. Ironically enough, while Elizondo seemed to add a saltier rhythmic edge to other songs on Extraordinary Machine, what he did to “Oh Well” was actually Brion-like, a luxurious musical wallow in the sorrow . But this song would have been a hard one to mis-produce anyway, so impressive were its music and lyrics, so raw and emotional was Apple’s performance.
The narrator blames her ex for the way that he altered her own view of herself and distorted her better judgment: “What you did to me made me see myself something different/And though I try to talk sense to myself but I just won’t listen.” She refuses his efforts to explain or apologize, preferring instead that he just go away and leave her to deal with the aftermath: “A voice once stentorian is now again meek and muffled.”
The fact that he was a repeat offender certainly doesn’t help the cause: “It took me such a long time to get back up the first time you did it/I spend all I had to get it back and now it seems I’ve been outbidded.” “When I was looking with calm affection/You were searching out my imperfections,” she sings, the evidence of his harsh behavior mounting.
You don’t need to know what a “hypnic jerk” is to know that his presence leaves her life in constant upheaval. Yet the ultimate sense you get from the song isn’t anger. It’s disappointment, in the fact that a potentially lifelong relationship has been reduced to regrets, in his failure to love her enough to meet her expectations of him. All of this comes to bear in the closing lines: “What a cold and common old way to go/ When I was feeding on the need for you to know me/ Devastated at the rate you fell below me.”
The final two words of the song are the only time the title is mentioned. It is an admission that all of her eloquence in dressing down her ex amounts to nothing, for the outcome remains unchanged. Sometimes “Oh Well” is all you can say, but rarely has a shrug ever registered with such potency as it did when sung by Fiona Apple as part of this towering lament.