Fiona Apple is one of pop music’s maximalists. She has unique and unplaceable vocal style; her songs are jammed with lyrics delivered in urgent, breathless, monologue. A lot of her songs sound like insistent Sondheim recitative or slam poetry. The titles of her albums set records for their length (When The Pawn…’s and The Idler Wheel…’s full titles run to 89 and 23 words respectively). Her work is unstable and unpredictable; songs regularly take wild swerves and end up in completely different places to where they start. Successive tracks on her albums have full orchestral arrangements, brass bands, jazz bands, choirs of voices, tubular bell, marimbas, and bassoons. Apple’s fifth album Fetch The Bolt Cutters is being marketed as a work of post #MeToo rebellion and traumatic expression and it seems to have struck a chord: Pitchfork gave it a near unheard of 10/10 saying “no music has ever sounded quite like it” and it has achieved strong chart positions across the world and an increased profile for Apple.
When her first album, Tidal, was released in 1996, Apple was marketed as ‘adult contemporary’, a bit like Norah Jones. Tidal is a smooth listen, encompassing a range of voguish, mid 90s genres: a bit of chillout here, a bit of easy going ‘jazz’ there — a lot of it sounds like Massive Attack. Five albums and 24 years later, the lyrical overload remains, but the easy-listening smoothness has gone, replaced by an emotional directness and vocal rawness. The soft ingénue’s voice on Tidal is a voice constantly pushed to breaking point on Fetch The Bolt Cutters. It’s an extreme performance: she growls at the bottom of her register and shrieks, whimpers at the top. Her voice sounds tired and cigarette-stained; she sounds older, like she’s lived and not especially easily. Her voice is presented with no effects and little post-production tidying up or processing. It’s stark and immediate. The album was written and recorded entirely in her house and you can hear it. The songs are filled with out-of-tune pianos, junk percussion and sounds of her dogs barking. All this production rawness serves as an analogy for the emotional rawness for which Apple is famous. For Her, one of the best songs on Fetch the Bold Cutters, starts with clapping and clicking percussion of hands and fingers and contains the line “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in” which comes like a slap in the face. The song’s percussion falls away and we get a ragged chorus of overlaid female voices. It’s an extraordinarily effective moment, the vocal performance, production aesthetic and lyrical directness working together to deliver a hammer blow of power.
But Apple juxtaposes, in Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the darkest of experiences with more quotidian stories of female oppression. Under The Table tells a story about Apple (or a female protagonist) embarrassing her date at a fancy dinner party: “kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up” she sings. It turns out she never wanted to go in the first place. It’s a song about Apple chafing against bourgeois respectability, making a scene, being too outspoken. Turn over the table Fiona! What are you doing begrudgingly going to a dinner party? You’re a pop star! Apple’s primal screams on this album seem out of step with such domestic concerns.
The title, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is a quote from Gillian Anderson’s female detective character in BBC serial killer drama The Fall (a show that was widely thought when it was broadcast to be male-gazey and problematic, eroticising as it did the torture and murder of young women in Belfast). Apple talks in interviews about the sexual abuse she experienced as a child, and the anorexia she developed in the subsequent years as a result. The video for her 1996 single Criminal eroticises both her thinness and youthful vulnerability: Apple is presented in the mid-90s fashion aesthetic of ‘heroin chic’. The song starts with the line “I’ve been a bad bad girl” and features stuffed toy animals and Apple — looking like a very young teenager — in a sea of anonymous naked limbs. It’s hard to disentangle authorship for the Criminal video, although Apple does not disavow it — “It was my personal mission to do that video”, she has said — and my point is not that it’s wrong or bad, just that Apple moves with the times. It was 24 years ago and there are innumerable, complex personal and professional reasons for the change in tone of her output, not least Apple being a quarter of a century older. But Fetch The Bolt Cutters wants us to believe that Apple is a musician of pure expressionistic force, authentic and raw; in fact, she tracks the zeitgeist.
Apple’s music is melodramatic and theatrical, and Fetch the Bolt Cutters is dense with references to other music. The junky blues percussion sound is borrowed from Tom Waits. She summons up the spirits of Kate Bush (“shoes that were not made for running up that hill, and I need to run up that hill” — Fetch The Bolt Cutters) and Patti Smith (“Hurricane Gloria in excelsis deo” — Shameika) drawing power from the female survivors of alternative pop. The album reminded me of Lotte Lenya singing Pirate Jenny from The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill: the rough vocal performance combined with the stories of female pain and subjugation. Apple draws on these references to construct an image of herself as alt-pop wild woman, too intense for the mainstream; and she works hard on this album to convince us that she is 4 REAL. It doesn’t quite convince. She is a successful commercial artist and has been for decades. She dates TV producers and well-regarded film directors. Her parents are actors and broadway singers. She’s an insider and a professional, in other words, an effective industry operator, and has been for decades. But of course, we expect a bit of self-mythologising of artistic personae, especially in pop music; and even Patti Smith, high priestess of punk authenticity, is a prime example of vigorous and effective self-mythologising.
first published in Positionen.