Fiona Apple is a lover and a fighter who doesn’t differentiate much between a strike and a kiss. The stormy dynamics of her romantic relationships, excavated in many of her songs, carried through on stage at the Hollywood Palladium Sunday, where she gripped her face, pulled on her hair and lashed her voice until it frayed. It was Apple’s way of wooing a devoted hometown crowd full of fans who sang along and screamed “I love you!”
She arrived apologizing for being half an hour late, blaming her nerves. But for all her human emotions, Apple also seems to think of herself as a machine who can survive, even thrive, when pushed to extremes. She hovered on the brink of breakdown during “Criminal,” standing at the microphone with her gaunt frame folded into itself as she tore into the self-flagellating lyrics. Apple kept her eyes shut, as if she didn’t want to witness her own thrashing.
Fortunately, Apple balances the intensity with theatrical wit. That combination has never been more mesmerizing than on her new album, “The Idler Wheel.” Influenced by her Broadway veteran parents and cabaret-singing sister Maude Maggart, Apple sometimes seems like Edith Piaf if she’d grown up watching Girls. While her backing band re-created the churn and clatter of “Anything We Want,” Apple sang the song’s most playful line in a quavering voice: “Let’s pretend like we’re eight years old playing hooky/ I’ll draw on the wall and you can play UFC rookie.”
The small group of musicians on stage with Apple, including guitarist Blake Mills (who opened the evening with an intriguing set of country-tinged porch music), took two tacks in supporting their little sparrow. Their playing was muscular and bruising in “On the Bound,” all the better for Apple to rush to her piano and plunk out a few chords.
Other times they hewed close to the bare percussive settings of “Idler Wheel.” Though the audience gamely followed either course, the more bluesy treatments of Apple’s older songs sometimes made them feel out of date. For “Sleep to Dream,” Mills finished the song with a blast of guitar soloing that felt more appropriate for a honky-tonk dive. It seemed like the guitar was intended as the instrumental copy of Apple’s feral but controlled vocals, but the song sounded fresher when it was stripped back.
For “Daredevil,” the band’s muscle seamlessly meshed with the song’s minimal rhythms. Drummer Amy Wood raced along with Apple, who by the end of the song had found her way to her own pair of mallets, bringing them down for the last beat. It was one of the few moments when Apple seemed a little more loose, her body not wired to explode. Throughout the evening, her tension simultaneously connected her to the crowd and kept her at some distance.
But her focus was always dazzling, as were the limber tones of her voice, from supple conversation to hoarse despair. With her low moan drawing out the chorus of “Shadowboxer,” her defensive posturing seemed more convincing than ever. Apple was only 18 when the song came out in 1996 and already hip to love’s tricks. But now at age 34, she’s smart enough to know that spotting the dangers doesn’t offer any real protection from getting ensnared all over again.
Skipping the formalities of the encore with a funny little speech about it, Apple launched into a lovely cover of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” which she delivered with the conviction of someone who intimately knows that fantasies can keep us going through the darkest hours.