Good Or Bad Apple?

The New Fiona Apple Album, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters‘ has been causing quite a stir online. It seems she can do no wrong.

We received some differing opinions. Is it a Good Or Bad Apple?

Read our VERSUS reviews from esteemed writers Craig Demosthenous and Michael Erfort and decide for yourself.

GOOD APPLE?

GOOD APPLE?: Fee-fi-fo-Fiona *****

I don’t think it’s easy being Fiona Apple. She’s as complex as she is compelling. Or is that the same thing?

Two things to get out of the way before we even get into this. In a career of twenty four years, this is only Fiona Apple’s fifth album (2012’s The Idler Wheel… was eight years ago). The album was also released on April 17, right in the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic with global lockdowns at their peak. So at a time of us confined to our homes, movements restricted and the pressure cooker on hiss, Fiona’s record arrived with a core message she described as, “Fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation you’re in.” Art imitating life? In this case no. Fiona Apple’s good friend – and the world’s only real access point to her – Zelda Hallman, is on record as saying Fiona named the album years back, with Zelda as witness to the title scrawled across a blackboard during recording sessions in Fiona Apple’s home in Venice Beach, California. It’s pop trivia like this that makes Fiona our generation’s reluctant seer. The album title is actually a line spoken by Gillian Anderson in the chilling TV series, The Fall. That Fiona Apple connected to this show in particular, and the character of ‘Stella’ that Gillian Anderson plays, should be your entry point to this album.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters is an album not afraid to go “there”. The love, the anxiety, the lust, the depression, the rage, the insecurity, the bliss.

It’s all there with Fiona Apple in full exploration mode. There’s equal hard-earned resilience and painful fragility on display, which makes for a beautifully immersive and textured listen. Over the 13 tracks of the album, mostly recorded in her own home using GarageBand, one of the most striking characteristics is that it sounds like nothing other than a Fiona Apple record. You hear an artist working with happy abandon, with not so much as a care about what the listener thinks. This, the album’s biggest credit, may also be a criticism levelled at it by some. On some songs she holds notes too long, some end abruptly and at the end of the title track a choir of dogs erupt (hers and Cara Delevingne’s).

It’s one of the album highlights and one that affirms why to the uninitiated, Fiona Apple can sometimes be dubbed “too much” or “too smart”. It’s also a female-centric record. A song like Under The Table with its lyric, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up,” represents the kind of woman that’ll make a certain kind of man uncomfortable or even threatened. She’ll be passed off for a kook and he won’t get the joke. But that’s the strength of Fiona Apple and where she’s at on this album. You either come along for the ride and explore what’s on offer, or she’ll just as easily flip you the bird without so much as a flinch.

For someone so blissfully removed from the inner workings of pop culture and its image factory, there’s a lightning conductor self-awareness to lyrics like, “Saying I’m not stylish enough and I cry too much. And I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet. So all I could hear was the noise that people make when they don’t know shit. But I didn’t know that yet.”

Women artists are so often unfairly compared to, or pitted against their female peers, but this comparison I don’t think Fiona will mind me making. There’s a keen sense of storytelling in these songs the same way Tori Amos is able to convey with her music. This makes characters on the album come to life, so when Fiona sings “Shameika said I have potential,” you know exactly the kind of girl Shameika is and her place on Fetch The Bold Cutters.

Musically, what’s most pronounced on this album is Fiona’s deep understanding of rhythm. It’s something I really don’t think she gets enough credit for. It’s a percussion heavy and experimental record with Fiona and her album mates banging out their take on the heaven and hell of existing. Yet no matter what glowing words of gratification I throw at the album, or even if the next person drags it, Fiona Apple will remain blissfully unaware and unphased.

And perhaps that’s the mark of true artistic freedom and the ultimate strength of this record. She’s fucking free and inviting you to hear and feel it with her.

A lot has been written calling the album a masterpiece for the #metoo era, but I’d like to flip that and call this a #forme record. You get the feeling Fiona Apple made this with an audience of one in mind: herself. Isn’t that the ultimate act of empowerment?

Review: Captain Craig Demosthenous

ROTTEN APPLE?

ROTTEN APPLE? *

My first contact with Fiona Apple’s music was way back in 1996. She was notable for two things back then, she was mentioned in the same breath as Tori Amos (or branded an imitator) and secondly she was known for being a rape victim at the age of 12. Sadly, the latter was used to market her music and she was framed as an angry young woman who thrashed out her issues through song.

Her music videos, particularly “Criminal”, was overly gratuitous and difficult to watch. Apple was 18 at the time and, like many female artists, was objectified. In her case though, as well as being objectified, she was also cast as the spokesperson for sexual abuse. These two disparate issues became her selling point and to some extent the music became secondary. This is not atypical of the music scene. Fact is some of the music was exceptionally good. The aforementioned “Criminal”, “Shadowboxer” and “Sullen Girl” were amazing songs. There was also evidence on that first album, particularly on “Sleep To Dream”, of the percussiveness she would fully embrace on Fetch The Bolt Cutters. After Tidal, She released When The Pawn…(1999); Extraordinary Machine (2005) and The Idler Wheel ((2012).

Each of these albums showed some evidence of her moving towards the type of music that is represented on Fetch The Bolt Cutters. “On The Bound” from When The Pawn…; “Window” from Extraordinary Machine and “Periphery” from The Idler Wheel hinted at the industrial sound she full realizes on Fetch The Bolt Cutters.

This is the first sign that Fiona is not doing anything groundbreaking or even saying anything that she has not said already.

So my question is, why all the fuss about Fetch The Bolt Cutters?

I can only speculate. The hype surrounding it is something I haven’t experienced in a while. It has received good reviews from most notable music media. It also holds the record of being the only album to receive a 100 out of a 100 rating from Metacritic. The general response to the album has been that it is a groundbreaking, brave and like nothing that has been heard before. This is only part of the hype. Another issue that has been driven home is how Fiona Apple is a spokesperson for women who face abuse. This marketing angle echoes the same tact as her debut which was released 24 years ago. Again the media is painting the picture of Fiona as some ambassador for female woes. Let me make it clear, I am not diminishing any of the issues she raises on the album. I am however, questioning the fact of whether Fiona is consciously adopting the role of ambassador or is simple speaking for herself. This issue is debatable.

Also virtually every review mentioned a dog barking in the background. So what? What is this supposed to signify? That it was recorded at home during lockdown?

I guess that’s the sub-text they are trying to create. Also Fiona bravely demanded that the record release date be shifted forward from October to April. Gallant decision in these tough times or just insignificant nonsense? It should be noted that she has been working on this album since 2015… five years before lockdown.  

I touch on these issues merely to uncover why this album has received such wide attention and has basically received no bad reviews. I should point out that I have listened to it more times than any other album in 2020. Not because I love it and think it’s a masterpiece but because it received so much praise and I received so much vilification for not liking it. People whom I trust, love this album and claim it to be a work of wonder. So I listened to it many times to try and hear what most other people were hearing. So I guess the hype worked.  But what about the music? Does it work?

The album opens with some percussive fiddling and then some repetitive piano riff. As the vocals come in, Fiona’s voice gets gruffer and gruffer as she sings: “ I want what I want and I want you…to love me.” All this is fine but nothing that is earth shattering. She then moves into scatting and the song ends with a screeching howl which has been compared to Yoko Ono especially in the Plastic Ono band. A fair comparison but just adds nothing to this mess of a song. Also using Yoko Ono as a musical reference point is a negative rather than a positive. Track 2, “Shameika”, is about Fiona’s tormented school days where she was bullied. “Shemeika said I had potential” she spews venomously and tunelessly. This song touches on the cruelty females dish out to each other as well as the difficulty of not fitting in. Fiona is clearly exorcising ghosts. To me it sounds like formless ranting. I guess it’s supposed to represent anger that has been building up for years but I think it fails momentously.

Tracks 1 and 2 seem like rough unsuccessful templates for track 3 (“Fetch The Bolt Cutters” which actually works way better. It’s the same formula but seems more realized…one of a few on this album that is. Here she references Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” (“And I need to run up that hill…I will I will”) which most reviewers saw as an invitation to compare Fiona to Kate Bush. This comparison is beyond me and, frankly, is quite lazy. The phrase “fetch the bolt cutters” was borrowed from the series The Fall.  The full quotation is:  “Fetch the bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation you’re in.”

This is literally what the themes of this album cover. Sexual abuse, toxic female to female relationships, femininity and masculinity and freedom to express your identity.

All these issues have been covered by Fiona before and in most cases, more effectively than this. My question is do we need bolt cutters to set us free if the keys are in our pocket? Make of this statement what you want.

Track 4, “Under The Table”, opens with the self-consciously “trying to be clever” lines: “I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me”. Thematically it deals with not shutting up when someone is trying to supress you. Admittedly, aside from the contrived lyrics, the song is amazing. If the entire album had this kind of quality, maybe then I would have fallen for the hype. Track 5, “Relay” lowers the bar with its satanic cheerleader chant: “Evil is a relay sport/When the one who’s burnt/Turns to pass the torch.” It’s a great line (apparently written when she was 15 years old) and I only wish it could have been used in a real song. Part of the song is apparently aimed at Brett Kavanaugh who was nominated by Donald Trump to the U.S. Supreme Court even though he was accused of sexual assault.

Track 6 “Rack Of His” also has some kind of promise but just does not lift off. At this point it doesn’t sound like Apple is singing anymore, maybe she is just tired. In many interviews she stated she was using her voice as an instrument and didn’t really want to sing in a “pretty voice.” Well her voice does sound like an instrument. One that hasn’t been tuned properly. At this point of the album, the lyrics are becoming annoying and the themes repetitive.

Track 7, “Newspaper” follows the same percussive heavy formula, however, the additional vocals add some depth to the track. The track is about females bonding over the same man. The song is painful and for once the lyrics are effective: “I watch him walk over you, talk over you, be mean to you/and it makes me feel close to you.”  Track 8, “Ladies”, is by far the best track on this album. It is amazing and best of all it sounds like a song. Its soulful and Fiona’s voice shines. I am dumbfounded why she did not employ this depth of her talent over the course of this album. A great pity and a lost opportunity.

“Heavy Balloon” also displays potential but just goes nowhere. “The bottom begins to feel like the only safe place that you know.” The rest of the album chugs along like most of the preceding tracks with a line or two that catches attention for all the wrong reasons. One such line: “Well good morning/good morning/you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”. Harrowing and gratuitous and ultimately very sad that human beings can inflict such pain on each other. This leads me to the question of whether Fiona Apple is brave or not. Simple answer is “Yes” because she bares her soul and seemingly spares no detail and “No” because musically she does nothing new and lyrically she is weak apart from a great line or two.

Is she a spokesperson for women? Does she want to be? Maybe the answer lies in the following lines from “Ladies”: Good women like you/yet another woman, to whom I won’t get through.” This exposes her intention and perhaps contradicts some of her statements denying that she aspires to be a spokesperson for females.  To be honest this album is not as bad as my initial listens indicated but also not a s good as many claim it to be. That aside, this album will not pass my ears again.

Review: Captain Michael Erfort

Photo Credits: Zelda Hallman