Nightman Listens To – Fiona Apple – Fetch The Bolt Cutters (2020 Series)!

Greetings, Glancers! Memories. Misty, water-coloured, shitballs! Yes, when I hear the name Fiona Apple I can’t help but be transported back to the 90s when one of my mates kept trying to force me to listen to her, but I refused because no-one worth listening too could possibly have ‘apple’ in their name. But listen I did, and forgotten I have, beyond a few floaty snippets. Full transparency, the only time I really remembering to Fiona Apple in earnest was when I had gobbled some illicit shrubs and… well that story goes off into untellable and unintelligible tangents so we’ll just leave it like that. Is it cool she’s still topping critical lists now, more than twenty years later? Sure. Lets hope the reasons for such acclaim are genuine and not just the equivalent of legacy Oscar nominations. I know nothing about this album, I don’t know the names of any of the songs, so lets check out the artwork.

It’s part of a selfie, presumably designed to make her look a little manic and wide-eyed. I seem to remember her previous albums focusing on her face too. At least I assume it was her on the cover. Are those ribbons on the side? Is the font suggestive of the thematic content and the album title – cut up, self-made, imperfect? Why is there half a dog where her scalp should be? I’m curious to see if her sound has changed from the little I remember. I know she was always a little too slow and jazzy and free-form for my tastes back then – too many ballads and not enough of a musical or vocal edge than the other 90s Indie types I was more invested in – Tori and Alanis for example. Lets get into it and find out.

Musically and vocally, I don’t think Apple has changed much since the 90s. I’m not the right person to give such unsubstantiated opinions of course, but having now listened to Fetch The Bolt Cutters several times and comparing it with my memories of her from decades ago, she’s still doing now what she did then – personal piano led ballads and diatribes with vocals shifting between smoother jazz influenced moments and more offbeat yelps and blasts. I never thought she had the most distinct sound – musically or vocally – but it’s cool that her voice sounds as authentic and youthful as it did then. There’s no trace of weariness, but some of the more talky and overly accented pop styles of recent years has seeped in to her delivery. I spent most of my first listen struggling to decide if I liked the delivery or not. I’m still not sold, but on the whole I enjoyed her vocals. Her quirky ticks are back again – those I have no issue with – and she can blast with power and control when she wants to, but there are a few talky moments and stylistic choices which are not to my tastes.

The album feels very independent and self-made. The production feels homely – not cheap – but feels like it was made with minimalism in mind either to give the appearance that it was recorded in isolation, or because it genuinely was – Lockdown and all that. Beyond the vocals and the pianos, the most noticeable elements of the production are the clanging percussion and sound effects – we have cats, dogs, and what sounds like doors slamming and sticks hitting tables on top of traditional drums. Every song has something to spice up the sound and goes a long way in preventing the whole from sounding bland. Certain songs tend towards the more experimental in terms of percussive techniques – and these songs are often the most structurally interesting, perhaps suggesting there is a strong connection between the two where songwriting is concerned. Heavy Balloon perhaps is the most adventurous in both respects, while the most melodic and commercial songs on the album tend towards the more traditional approach – Shameika a prime examples, though hardly a prime example of what you would would call a normal Top 40 hit. These simple twists on what we expect – 808 Hi-hats, repetitive beats, glossy production, all serve to give the album an unearthly earthy atmosphere – the sounds and thoughts collected and thumped out on dustbins and a barely functioning piano which was old when QEII was young, thumped out in a cabin set deep in the oldest woods by that strange woman who walks into town once a week to pack her groceries in a thatch woven satchel, that woman you warn your kids to not talk to because she lives alone and probably has a cat and a broomstick.

Rambling asides aside, the atmosphere is one of several highpoints of the album. The experimentation is part of this, but also its own thing. For Her is a triumph of fierce independence and righteous anger, unleashing more musical creativity and poetic smarts in under three minutes than some artists dream of their entire careers. It would be easy to place the lyrics and Apple on a pedestal as an example of modern Feminism, the elder Riot Grrrl still rioting in the face of patriarchal corruption and their allies both silent and vocal, the woman aligning with fighters against the myriad injustices of society which we feel powerless against. But for me, the album more appropriately comes across as one woman’s feelings separated from wider movements or moments, the primal justified scream which has been bubbling for years, aimed at multiple targets, hitting them all, leaving those who hear it to either cover their ears or scream in support.

Melodically, there is something bewitching about certain songs. Ladies, Shameika, Relay, and the title track all have moments which are primitive in their infection rate – you hear them and can’t help but want to repeat and move to their strange beats. Elsewhere, the connection between rhythms and melodies does threaten to become too repetitive, words racing chaotically in predictable patterns almost like a central unique idea was latched on to and rather than rinsing that idea over the duration of a few songs, it is instead repeated until what was unique becomes the norm. There are other patterns to be found – the piano is front and centre in the album’s introduction, but by the album’s conclusion dissonant percussive elements have taken over. I Want You To Love Me’s breathless, lung-collapsing opener feels brazen and anthemic – the chest beating haka before a marathon, while closer On I Go feels like the exhausted rushed finale of a sprint. I prefer the more forceful vocal moments than the speeding listing of lyrics, but throughout the lyrics are interesting, engaging, amusing, begging for a physical copy to pore over.

I know nothing of Apple’s life to appreciate any personal anecdotes, but it’s easy to select the defiant moments and apply those to your own circumstances, the title track and Under The Table filled with one-liners. I imagine a greater knowledge of the subjects of her ire, the context behind the words would improve already impressive lyrics, but the purpose of these first time reaction posts is simply to expose myself to the music using what I already know. There’s nothing stopping me using the experience as a jumping off point to learn more, but that would be outside of any post I make. Is there enough on Fetch The Bolt Cutters to make me want to learn more? Sure, Apple is a more interesting performer than most but there’s still the niggling thought that my enjoyment levels of her music are only going to go so far. I don’t find her music to grab me immediately, like a Tori, and I don’t anticipate her music to sustain me and keep me wanting more, like an Alanis. I can appreciate it for a piece of art, a statement, an example of a woman wanting to do whatever the hell she wants, but as an artist and entertainer I’d be drawn to and anticipative of, I don’t see much future. I’m a simple man.

Album Score

Sales: 2. I hate mentioning this category now. In the old days we could have had a streamlined breakdown equating Sales to a score here, with a 1 being something like less than 15 thousand copies, and a 5 being over 1 million. For example. We could still do that now, but we’d have to factor in equivalent album sales, streams etc. Add to the fact that albums in general sell less these days, certainly physically. In any case, the number I see thrown around for this album is 44k. The album will have sold more since that number was released, but I imagine it has sold less than 44k since then on top of the original 44k. So, we’re probably talking a total of less than 80K sold. That’s not a 1 by any stretch, so we’re stuck between a 2 and 3. It doesn’t feel like a huge number to me – I could be wrong, but I’m going 2.

Chart: 2. It was Top 10 in US, Canada, and Denmark, but only reached 33 in UK, 13 in Australia, and 38 in Spain. It’s debateable if it was Top 40 in the US end of year charts. I think to get a 3 here you need to hit a wider spread of Top 10s and/or reach that end of year Top 40. Again, 2 feels both harsh, but right – I’m good if you push to a 3. 

Critical: 5. This was one of the easier answers – it’s, at this point, one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time. Whether or not people – fans, critics, list makers, will have the same view in 10 years time remains to be seen, but in the short years since release it’s the 2nd highest rated album ever on a number of Review Aggregate sites. Beyond that, it topped various respected critics and publications’ lists of the year – Forbes, Consequence Of Sound, Metacritic, The Guardian, NYT, Pitchfork, Slant to name a few. 

Originality: 3. It’s not a 5 and it’s not a 1. That leaves a 2-4 range for you, likely dependent on how much of an existing fan you are and how much music you listen to. I’ll go down the middle with a 3 – it’s original in terms of what’s out there at the moment, less so in terms of what has been done in the past, and less so in terms of what Apple herself has done.

Influence: 3. I’m always hopeful that an artist as interesting as Apple is will have an influence on new artists. If the critical acclaim had translated to sales I’d have more hope, but this feels like it will be a critical darling missed by the masses and maybe not handed down to subsequent generations. People will find it, but I’m not sure if it will directly influence those people rather than other artists.

Musical Ability: 3. It’s a strange album in that it’s almost anti-musical. I struggle to recall truly musical moments in the album from a traditional standpoint – a person playing their instrument with a clear technical expertise. But sometimes it takes a skilful musician to present an album in that way.

Lyrics: 4. I can’t quite reach a 5 here – while the lyrics on the whole are admirable and creative and funny and insightful, they do also slip into a scattershot conversational approach which don’t read as well on the page as they sound when performed. 

Melody: 3. Fleeting moments amidst the overall chaos and atmosphere, off kilter snippets which cut through what is seemingly designed to challenge and oppose traditional approaches. 

Emotion: 3. I’d love to go 4 here, but in many cases I think I was trying to make myself feel instead of actually feeling it. I feel the the performers felt a lot during the creation and recording of the thing, but those feelings didn’t consistently translate for me, beyond the obvious anger and frustration.

Lastibility: 3. Again, I’m happy for you to go with a 4 here, but I have a feeling it will mainly be existing Apple fans who will keep playing this rather than being picked up by the masses and it being perpetually rediscovered through time. 

Vocals: 4. I’ll be more positive here – I could have given a 3, but the talky moments don’t irritate me as much as they could and they are countered by some exquisite husky tones and forcefully charged highs. 

Coherence: 4. There’s a flow, a chain to the album, descending from a musical and melodic place to a more bitter, chaotic, and tired finish. But the production, the voice, the themes tie the whole together.

Mood: 4. The coherence serves the mood and vice versa, the mood ranging from something akin to Folk Horror, to peak 90s Indie femme rants. 

Production: 3. While I praise the production, I couldn’t confirm or deny whether the lockdown, necessity mother of invention approach was authentic or a stylistic choice. Not that it matters much as the mood is evoked regardless. A little more gloss wouldn’t hurt.

Effort: 4. It seems like this was the first album in many years by Fiona Apple – why that is I don’t know, but the effort in getting these words and feelings onto a page and into our ears feelings more weighty and even as slight as the Production feels, the album has heft. It feels like the result of many years, and many albums of struggles, to produce something which many clearly feel is the peak of her art. 

Relationship: 3. My enjoyment only goes so far is what I was getting at earlier, at that’s partly to do with this category. I feel at a distance from the artist, rather than being welcomed into their home. That may or may not have been the artist’s intention, but if that was the intention it’s certainly something I can understand – I wouldn’t invite any of you into my home. 

Genre Relation: 3. A strange one to score – to we say this transcends the relative genre and therefore should be scored high, or because it doesn’t easily relate to the genre it’s part of then we should score it low? Lets go with an average 3. 

Authenticity: 5. I’m guessing she crafted most of this herself – while I’m sure she had bandmates and producers helping and influencing her, this comes across as the pure outcome of one person’s singular vision.

Personal: 3. I’d like to go higher here, but as mentioned in my conclusion, given the choice between art and entertainment, I’ll go for entertainment each time. A successful blending of the two will inevitably be a personal favourite. For me, this goes too far towards art than entertainment – not so far that it becomes clinical, but far enough that I view it as a specimen for study more than a collection of songs to stick on. Some people prefer the artistic approach. I prefer the opposite, or a cleaner blend.

Miscellaneous: 3. Three seems to be the standard for this category.

Total: 67/100

Let us know in the comments what you think of Fetch The Bolt Cutters – is this Fiona Apple’s best album?

Tell it like it is!

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