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Fiona Apple’s cathartic music

The artist's fifth studio album was eight years in the making, but the wait is worth it because it’s art pop at its brilliant best

Fiona Apple performing in Inglewood, California, in January 2019.
Fiona Apple performing in Inglewood, California, in January 2019. (Photo: Getty Images)

You could say controversy helped Fiona Apple when she began her career. Apple was all of 18 when she released her debut album, Tidal. It was a hit, selling three million copies and garnering an MTV Video Music Award. The year was 1996 and she had embarked on a career in music just two years earlier.

Trained in classical piano, Apple’s vocals on Tidal sounded mature beyond her years and her jazz-influenced piano playing was impressive. But the lyrics of her songs, all of them self-composed, betrayed her immaturity. In retrospect, Tidal may have become a huge hit owing to the provocative video of one of the songs, Criminal, whose sexually charged images created a controversy. Apple’s rebellious speech at the MTV awards ceremony, where she was irreverently dismissive about trends and fashion fads, also helped her get noticed.

But Apple, a New York City native, surprised everyone who may have thought this new young singer-songwriter’s debut was just a flash in the pan when she released her sophomore album, popularly known as When The Pawn…. That’s not the entire title of the album. It is: “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 IsThe 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." Ninety words. A gimmick? Probably. But with that album, Apple reached cult status.

Apple was only 22 at the time but her jazz-meets-pop compositions had already become much more mature and her vocal style exuded a singularity so striking that it was difficult to pin down who or what her big influences were. When The Pawn…was followed, in 2005, by Extraordinary Machine, yet another excellent album, which, like her second one, requires multiple listens to fully absorb.

It’s not an easy album. Apple’s idiosyncratic arrangements, singing and scatting styles and intricate, often complex lyrics (example: What you did to me made me see myself somethin’ awful/ A voice once stentorian is now again meek and muffled/ It took me such a long time to get back up the first time you did it/ I spent all I had to get it back, and now it seems I’ve been out-bidded) don’t make her music easily accessible. But those who get it become part of her cult.

Apple’s fourth album, also with a long title (The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do), followed in 2012. It’s a spare and minimalistic album—her singing accompanied only by piano and percussion, and it grows on the listener.

But it’s with her fifth studio album that Apple has scaled soaring heights. Fetch The Bolt Cutters was released on 17 April in a locked-down world in the throes of a pandemic. The album was eight years in the making, and it shows. None of Apple’s previous albums has the complexity and unpredictability of Fetch The Bolt Cutters.

Apple has moved to a much more multilayered sound. Her jazz-influenced piano is there, of course, but percussion has increased in proportion; the double bass appears prominently; and there are choral interludes. The songs and lyrics (always complex and open to different interpretations) are deeper. The standout track is For Her. It’s a song written when US Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, accused of sexual assault, was being nominated. Apple herself is a survivor—when she was 12, she was raped outside her home in Harlem. The song is themed on how women are disbelieved when they accuse their attackers and the anger and horror is palpable through the comfortably soothing warmth of the music.

But Fetch The Bolt Cutters isn’t an angry album. It has songs that touch on heartbreak and life’s reflections. In Under The Table, she sings about her defiant, devil-may-care attitude (in 1997, in her acceptance speech at the MTV awards, the teenager had said “the world is bullshit"); I Want You To Love Me is about obsessive love; Relay is about resentment (I resent you for being raised right/ I resent you for being tall/ I resent you for never getting any opposition at all/ I resent you for having each other/ I resent you for being so sure/ I resent you for presenting your life, like a fucking propaganda brochure).

Apple’s latest album showcases the essence of her music. It is pop music without the comfort of predictability. Melodies coexist with chaotic disarray; levity collides with heaviness; and, most of all, it is provocative enough for us to keep going back to. Ever since the debut album, Apple’s albums have always had the ability to make you want to listen to them on repeat. Her songs can seem asymmetrical, with their tempo changing when you least expect it. And her lyrics always make you think.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters is a masterpiece from Apple, who, at 42, is now a veteran of the experimental pop scene.


Five tracks by Fiona Apple to bookend your week

1. ‘For Her’ from ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’

2. ‘I Want You To Love Me’ from ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’

3. ‘Love Ridden’ from ‘When The Pawn…’

4. ‘Relay’ from ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’

5. ‘Every Single Night’ from ‘The Idler Wheel…’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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