My reviews of albums by Fiona Apple:
1996: Tidal (7/10)
In 2012, I wrote the following:
I paid no attention to this when it came out. In fact, I paid little attention to the singles as I barely recognize any of them. Apple was just another in the slew of mid-90s female singer-songwriters who were on the radio. I didn’t care.
Though Apple has certainly matured and improved her aesthetic sense and her reputation as an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter since, there is actually enough of her origins here to really surprise. I feel like she lives up to the standard set by Tori Amos years earlier that so few of these ’90s female singer-songwriters managed to live up to. The album is a little overproduced, and the songs are very much the work of a young person, but putting those things aside this is clearly the birth of a new interesting voice (and an important one, if she were willing to write a few more songs). I’m really surprised at how well this holds up.
I don’t quite agree with that. I think it’s a little more impressive. (She was 17 when she wrote most of these, 17!!!) I don’t think it’s overproduced exactly. Maybe a bit, but not in an offensive way. I still think she’s improved as a songwriter, though.
1999: When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right (9/10)
I could have sworn to you that I had heard this record before; I thought I had heard all of hers. But I went to check my old review and there was no review nor any rating. And that begs a question: did I listen to this and forget to review and or even rate it? (Unlikely.) Or is this set of songs so close to other Apple albums that I felt like I knew it already? (That isn’t good, right?)
This is a great set of songs. That’s what I thought before I realized I hadn’t heard it before. Now I have this sneaking suspicion that some of them sound too much like her other records (all of which I’ve heard). But this is neurotic, right? Why not just embrace a great set of songs from a great songwriter? They’re all catchy enough, they’re all interesting enough and her lyrics are good but also noticeably better – more mature, perhaps – than those on Tidal.
I really enjoy Apple as a performer – I like her voice, I like how she has (mostly) committed to piano at a time when that wasn’t particularly cool, and I like her approach to music. I don’t know who is most responsible for her arrangements – her, the producer, another musician, or all of them – but I always find her arrangements more interesting than they need to be. Her songs (almost) always have just enough quirk to take them to the next level. They’re good songs, but her idiosyncratic approach gives the listener more to handle, which is a good thing.
And I like the way this record sounds – it is not drowning in any of the music-wide cliches of the ’90s (except for one or two instances of funky drummer) and it’s free of most of the cliches associated with the rash of female singer-songwriters who were all over the place. In short, the record sounds like an album, not an album released in 1999. And that’s a good thing.
Honestly, it’s hard to find anything I don’t like about it, except this nagging feeling that maybe if I listened to her entire catalogue in order I would find this one lacking. But I’m not going to do that and, instead, enjoy it for what it is: excellent songs played and produced well.
2005: Extraordinary Machine (8/10)
So I paid no attention to Apple for years. I just lumped her in with that slew of women singer-songwriters that seemed to explode in the mid ’90s. That seems to me to have been extraordinarily unfair. What I failed to notice at the time was a strong but idiosyncratic songwriter who was willing to take musical risks, the kind of musical risks that appeal to me.
So this is apparently (mostly) the second version of the album. But whether it’s the over-done arrangements of the remaining songs from the original concept or its the sparer and more idiosyncratic arrangements of the new versions, we are given a good set of songs arranged well, which is all we should really want from a singer-songwriter.
2012: The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do (9/10)
I think at some point every good singer songwriter owes their audience a stripped-down record, so we can see the songs as they might have been in demos, so we can see the songs as they might be without the dressings. I guess this is Apple’s version of it, though it still has production touches that would hardly put it in the tradition of something like Plastic Ono Band or Nebraska.
Without the idiosyncratic production of her last album we are allowed to see the idiosyncratic songs and new levels of honesty in her performances (particularly on “Regret”). You can’t go wrong with good songs performed well. This is pretty much what a singer songwriter record is supposed to sound like.
My #3 record of 2012. Read my reviews of albums released in 2012.
2020: Fetch the Bolt Cutters (9/10)
So, full disclosure: I love Fiona Apple. My least favourite of all her albums is her first record, which is still extremely impressive for someone of her age. (Compare it to records made by similarly aged artists through the history of pop music, I bet it stands out pretty strongly). So I don’t think I can be unbiased here, I was probably going to like this even without the hype (which I have been trying to ignore).
When I was younger I was obsessed with artistic growth – if a band didn’t take major risks on its next album, I was nearly always disappointed. (Unless the album appealed to me on some visceral level that overwhelmed my conscious desire to look for “growth”). I blame The Beatles for this as I believe I subconsciously used their inhuman creative leaps as a standard all should aspired to. (While at the same time enjoying bands like AC/DC, which never grow. Figure out that contradiction…)
But as I get older I have a much greater appreciation for artists and bands who know themselves well enough to make records that sound like they should sound, for lack of a better word. What I mean is artists and bands who are able to sound like themselves. But what’s impressive to me is when someone manages to both sound like themselves and sound new or different. That ideal has replaced my obsession with growth for the sake of growth.
I mention this because this Fiona Apple album both sounds, at times, like every other Fiona Apple album, and also very different from every previous Fiona Apple album, and that is something I greatly admire. (In addition to liking the songs, as I always do.)
The first two songs are pretty classic Apple, but once we get to the title track, the more radical nature of this album starts to unveil itself. Apple only plays piano on four songs (!!!). It’s replaced by various keyboards but also, percussion, which is one of the two main things that really differentiates this album from her previous efforts. People have made Tom Waits comparisons and I don’t think they’re that insane – if you can imagine a female Tom Waits with a much more conventional voice, who recorded the album in her house.
The other thing is the way in which Apple is using her voice – on some of these tracks the influence of Hip Hop – or, at least, Hip Hop-influenced music – is palpable in her delivery, something I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before. It’s the other aspect of the record that feels like a step in a new direction, though she still very much sounds only like herself.
I haven’t sat down and listened to all the albums in a row, so I’m not sure I want to rank this record within her catalogue in terms of songs, but I’d say it’s one of her better sets. As usual the lyrics are excellent and her sense of melody is unfailing – as it has to be, given how relatively radical the arrangements are compared to her earlier albums.
Great. My #1 album of 2020. Read my few reviews of music from 2020.