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Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,481 words)
Even the way I first listened to Fetch the Bolt Cutters was oppositional. It wasn’t intentional. I knew I needed about an hour to listen to it all the way through. I knew I couldn’t really do anything else in order to give it my attention. So I took Fiona Apple’s inside record outside. At four in the afternoon in Toronto, the sun was piercing and it was open-coat weather, a strange way to listen to Apple’s nicotine voice and bedroom lyrics. Walking in the middle of a day so bright I needed to squint even through sunglasses, “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long,” bounced out of my headphones, a jazzy paradox. As everyone knows by now, the album was made by a shut-in, a “messianic figurehead,” according to the New Yorker, who hadn’t produced an album in eight years. A backstory all the better for conjuring the image of a mythical genius at work on an inevitable masterpiece.
I didn’t get it.
Claustrophobia is the overarching theme, even if it isn’t, of the album that came out of Apple’s exile. And during a crisis in which we all feel that same thing, it was inevitable that the concept would eclipse the music itself. It’s also understandable that not answering Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ call would feel particularly alienating — Slate music critic and Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste author Carl Wilson, who I contacted for this column in befuddlement, said that even he was surprised by how much attention Apple’s fifth album was getting. But in the present atmosphere, with physical connection forbidden, every other kind of connection becomes that much stronger. A man singing on his balcony in Rome unites a building, and a woman pounding on a piano in her home in Venice Beach unites the rest of us. Most of us. In normal times, having the dissenting opinion is a point of pride. In pandemic times, where all you want is to not be alone, it’s a cause for concern. Which is why it felt so important to figure out why I didn’t much like Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
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Technically I started listening to Apple’s album before that walk. Motivated by the unanimous praise, I went to YouTube and played the first track, “I Want You to Love Me.” But the second I heard whatever that sound is, I don’t know, a keyboard and cymbals chucka-chucka-chucka-ing, I thought, “Fuck, no.” I am not listening to that experimental shit. Later, in a more studious frame of mind, I persisted. And after about 20 seconds, that sound liquefied into a cascade of piano trills which would be familiar to any ‘90s Apple-ite. At the risk of sounding reductive, this is kind of how Fetch the Bolt Cutters goes if you aren’t feeling it; verses of relief surrounded by weird shit that plays like the opposite of an actual melody. In between hangs the kind of Apple-isms that have always clanged in my ear — mouthfuls of the kind of poetry that was once limited to high school but now stalks us all on Instagram — not to mention the insufferable repetition of words and phrases and the obnoxious holding of never-ending notes like “youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.” At the end of “I Want You to Love Me,” Apple discharges a lengthy, high-pitched throat warble that reminds me of Andie MacDowell’s dolphin-like vocalization in the 1991 Bruce Willis flop Hudson Hawk, a squall that causes Sandra Bernhard to sneer listlessly, “Just shoot her.”
I’m not going to make you suffer through much more of my non-critical thinking around music, but there’s definitely a sensation with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, if you listen to it from start to finish, of a knot being untied, of the songs relaxing into something more digestible as you pass the halfway mark (Editor’s note: “Are the songs relaxing into something more digestible, or are you relaxing into the songs?” Author’s note: It’s not me, it’s her). What doesn’t morph is the subject matter, which, restricted as it seems to Apple’s interpersonal grievances, seems all too confined for a project that was already confined in its production. The whole thing just struck me as too insular for how sweepingly it was being lauded. And despite the claims at raw unprocessed sound, those dog barks on the title song are so strategically placed I was more tickled by the actual dogs barking behind the fence I passed while listening to it. But then you can’t deny the added texture Apple’s voice has acquired with age and her own liberation from her old song strictures. The song I momentarily hated the most on the album, for the opening repetition of its title (“Ladies,” sixteen times!), is also the one I liked the most. Despite the clunky lyrics — “ruminations on the looming effect and the parallax view” — some subterranean motor seems to power this track through the history of music, from folk to rap to whatever, sailing between genres like there’s nothing to it. When people talk of genius, when Pitchfork gives the album 10 stars, I hear a glimpse of that here.
That’s the tension. If I just thought everyone had bad taste, or was dumb, I wouldn’t be tortured by disliking Fetch the Bolt Cutters. My lack of connection to it suggested I was missing some substantial sliver of intellect, which is something I can’t abide as someone who never really feels smart enough. So I groped for a music critic to explain it to me. But if I felt alienated from this particular cultural event, critics didn’t seem too concerned about inviting me in. “She sings, scats, lightly raps — and proceeds to curl her voice into an extended-vocal contortion à la Yoko or Meredith Monk, over a Reichian piano loop, signaling an avant-garde inclination,” Jenn Pelly wrote at Pitchfork. Wait, what? That isn’t critical analysis, it’s critical flexing. At The New Yorker, Carrie Battan’s use of the term “feral authenticity” to describe Apple’s oeuvre — based on her penchant for avoiding the public — recalled my mother’s duo-syllabic reaction to Apple (“hippie”) but not much else. So, I emailed Carl Wilson. Then I called Wilson; that’s how desperate I was for Wilson to explain what was wrong with me. “I feel a little stymied by your question,” he rightfully responded, “how can I tell you how to like something you already know you don’t like?”
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But then he proceeded to write the kind of email that should have been an article, the kind of explanation that’s the reason Wilson is my favorite music critic. That space between the music and the person listening to it? He writes the bridge. Wilson explained that the reaction to Fetch the Bolt Cutters felt “disproportionate” because of Apple’s absence for so long and because it is “of the moment in its theme and feel.” That includes its lyrics on the sort of gender issues we are currently confronting — not to mention Apple’s transcendence of musical boundaries, mixing disparate genres from cabaret to hip-hop — and that raw home-recorded style that opposes today’s ubiquitous hyper-produced singles. Wilson also noted the self-selection of music critics. And that most of the reviews I read on Apple’s album were by white women, on a beat that has famously had a dearth of female voices as a whole, does imply her music still hasn’t shaken that decades-old Lilith Fair connection.
“Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan back when — like you, I kind of felt that she was good but not great, maybe a little too self-conscious and strained to be great,” Wilson explained. But then he heard Apple’s fourth album, The Idler Wheel…, in 2012. That’s when he thought she had finally self-actualized (upon his suggestion, I listened to that album too and, indeed, the last track, “Hot Knife,” would not sound out of place on her new record). On Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Wilson noticed the piano that Apple forefronted in the past melded into layers of rhythm and percussion and vocals, her monotonous deep bluesy voice fracturing into a wider range of pitches. “To my ears that’s really opened up the space in her style, which I used to find too suffocating,” he wrote. “It has an immediacy that I find really rare in music right now, allowing by turns for both vulnerability and rapture.”
After all of that, Wilson’s final words could have very well been all he had written: “[M]aybe you just find Fiona Apple a bit much.” The irony is that the same thing I critique her for — for being too solipsistic, for making it all too self-centered — is the same reason I can’t hear her straight. My reactions to art are as impulsive as my consumption is lonely. It’s why, ultimately, I can’t trust critics’ taste though I can trust their analysis, and why I can’t trust the artists themselves, only their art and my own experience of it. If you think about it, it’s a little crazy to believe in your gut when your gut is at least in part influenced by exposure: “acquired taste” is a thing for a reason. And yet I always seem hellbent on independently deciding on the quality of everything. If nothing else, I am entirely secure in my judgment, because, the thinking goes, I may not know much about anything else, but I know myself perfectly.
I know, for instance, that I have a particular aversion to hippies, and that during the making of this album, Apple chanted around her house with various other musicians, banging on a box of her dead pet’s bones. I know I am intimidated by the blues and by jazz and reject them because of how stupid they make me feel, a symptom of my more general difficulty with engaging in art I don’t at least marginally understand. I know I have a particular aversion to beautiful women in the arts, because it’s never just about the art. I know this particular beautiful woman has dated powerful men — most notably the director Paul Thomas Anderson, as he got more and more famous — and that never means nothing, good or bad. And I know I resented Apple as a teen for being publicly tortured when she was publicly everything girls like me tortured ourselves for not being — good enough, but, more importantly, the right package to cover up for it (as Apple herself sings: “I resent you for never getting any opposition at all.”) I know all of this, but I feel it more.
Unfortunately, you can’t think yourself out of the way you feel. “A lot of the record is about feeling confined, emotionally and societally,” Wilson explained, “and about thinking of ways to liberate yourself.” But had Fetch the Bolt Cutters not alienated me musically, everything around it would have. I’m skeptical of blanket accolades; that something can appeal so globally suggests a lack of originality. And I can’t escape (liberate myself from?) the fact that being told another artist has achieved perfection is, as they say, triggering. The idea that someone has unlocked everything they are capable of and created something that is so purely them that it transcends time and space, God-like, to become an indisputable piece of perfection — it’s the thing every artist wants, for all their neuroses and all their intellect and all their values to coalesce into this object that by virtue of being so essentially them is essentially the rest of us as well. It’s incredibly rare, but you see it in work like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, for instance, or Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, both of which have had the added advantage of being recognized for their greatness. But this rarity makes each new proposed addition to the canon seem less believable than the last.
More than that, though, it plagues every other artist. Every time we hear that someone else has achieved mastery, or at least been recognized for achieving it, we’re reminded that we haven’t and likely never will (let alone be acknowledged for doing so). That’s the deepest feeling of isolation for an artist of all of them, that chasm between them and immortality. That’s the one they fear most that they (I) will never breach.
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I listened to Fetch the Bolt Cutters on a Spotify mix, so the album ended and then rolled into “Criminal,” Apple’s Grammy-winning 1997 single and perhaps her best known. Hearing that smooth lyrical piano and that even smoother voice felt like slipping into sweats after a long day in a pencil skirt; I think I may have sighed aloud. (Apple wrote “Criminal” when she was 17 and maybe that says something: that my music appreciation is stuck at that age.) The song, about how bad she felt for getting things so easily by virtue of her sexuality, recently resurfaced in Hustlers, with Jennifer Lopez making her entrance as stripper doyenne to Apple’s adolescent croon, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” That was another piece of popular culture that was unanimously praised that I was only so-so about. The difference is that I felt no tension there. I know films, and I could explain why I didn’t like Hustlers much. Because of that, because I had a reason, I allowed myself to dislike it. And until my editor mentioned it, I didn’t think that had anything to do with my gender. But now I’m starting to think it does — men never seem to require permission to opine, they don’t feel the need to be informed to do so. Which is not to say I shouldn’t — it’s to say they should. Because it means meeting a piece of art halfway, respecting the spirit in which it was made, and respecting the artist who made it.
As much as I continue to feel dissatisfied with my response to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, I’m less troubled after speaking to Wilson and researching Apple herself. A Rolling Stone profile from 1998 reminded me that when she was a kid, she carried around this quote by Martha Graham: “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” It’s the same quote I used in a column last August. And according to her New Yorker profile from March, Apple continues to display a photograph of Graham on her piano, the one she played on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. So even if I couldn’t connect to that album, I could, in a way, connect to the woman behind it, another isolated artist, unrested, just trying to keep marching.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.