I knew I was all in with the new Fiona Apple album was when I had my “Shameika” moment.
“Shameika” is the first single and second song on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, her first since 2012 and only the second since her reigning masterpiece, Extraordinary Machine. The song appears to be about a friend who made junior high more tolerable for the narrator. Shameika may have been a cool girl, a tough girl, whose encouragement made the bullying suffered by the narrator a little more tolerable. The chorus, when it kicks in, is this repeated four times:
Shameika said I had potential
Shameika said I had potential…
After this chorus the sound explodes in a squall, the percussive white-out of a sudden windy winter snow storm. The chorus stuck in my head, until I was giddy. Singing the line to myself boosted my confidence the way Shameika boosted Apple’s—assuming it is autobiographical.
Adapting the words to myself, I went on Twitter in the midst of coronavirus stasis, to declare: “I’m having a great day. Shameika says I have potential.” I wanted to get a can of spray paint and vandalize the smoke shop wall with the slogan: “Shameika says I have potential,” and wishing I had the artistic savvy to graffiti tag an “F” and a cool picture of an apple.
When was the last time I felt like that about a song? I don’t dare to think, or compare, but it was a while ago. I’ve been Social Security-eligible for a few years.
Fiona Apple has been making music professionally since the mid 1990s. She doesn’t make a lot of records. She seems to have been a sensitive girl and young woman, with her share of bad breaks and break ups, a sexual assault survivor. What I’ve read of her songwriting process, she is someone who has jotted down the words of every feeling since she was 12 (born in 1977, she is now 42) with access to those words when they appear right for a song. She has the gift to take all of life’s slights, large and small, and spin them into musical gold: the minutiae of memory transformed into universal truths.
I approached Fetch the Bolt Cutters gingerly, because of the rapturous immediate greeting it received: a rare 10 (out of 10) from Pitchfork, an A from Christgau’s Consumer Guide, out of 5 form Laura Barton of The Guardian, who called it a “glorious eruption.” Released in mid-April, it was already being hailed as the best album of 2020, no matter what might follow. I knew from experience that whomever violated the orthodoxy, would be seen as a negative noisemaker. Whoever led the backlash to the bandwagon would be decried as a monomaniacal hack or social media provocateur with less credibility than a Twitter sexbot.
That ain’t me babe. Apple plays piano and sings with conservatory skill. She has always had a distinctive approach to piano, both fluid and percussive, especially percussive. Her voice is beautiful, and she could be a master of many styles: blues, show tunes, pop, R&R, rap, rock and roll any old way you choose it. She’ll show you some of that stuff: “Ladies,” the second sweepstakes winner, begins like a laconic Beyoncé song before mutating, as they always do, into a quintessential Fiona Apple song. She addresses her audience directly: “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies…” She repeats this word 16 times, in 16 ways. You can imagine her in concert, speaking this introduction, starting a story to her core audience of … ladies of all ages: single woman, married women, teenagers, teens and their moms (a bonding experience like no other, I would guess), and the boys and men who try to love them. She’d talk about the troubles she’s seen, places she’s been, men who’ve been mean…but she knows how to be mean back. “Ladies” is as far a song of women’s solidarity can possibly go: she forgives and friends the woman who cheated with her man.
Some of the songs in this meticulously sequenced album stick together like best friends. It can’t be an accident that “Heavy Balloon,” a song about depression, which will always submit to gravity, is followed by “Cosmonauts,” about a relationship that defies gravity (yet also yields to it). She’s got gravitas.
In some songs it seems Apple always has her eye on the exit from situations that make her uncomfortable. Fetching the bolt cutters is one way to cut through whatever chains she’s feeling. But the bold “Under the Table,” takes us to an insufferable dinner party, in which she lacerates the preposterously pretentious mutton-heads holding forth. “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up,” she sings with emphatic insistence. The language is completely unadorned, as it is in these discussions when one has had too much to drink, and the urge to start or escalate an argument becomes irresistible. Some consider this song the sound of women’s empowerment: Drink your wine and speak your mind. That it may be, but it’s also a testament to the joys of uninhibited loutishness, which has always been a male prerogative in rock. Either way Apple wins.
She also turns a sexist stereotype around in the song, “Rack of His,” a play on a slang term for a woman’s breasts. “Rack of His” indeed makes fun of a certain male appendage: the guitar. Did you ever know a guitar player with one guitar? Of course not, they all proudly display their racks: “Look at that row of guitar necks/lined up like eager fillies/outstretched like legs of Rockettes.” In this love gone wrong story, six strings and a bunch of frets got in the way.
Though guitarist and visual artist David Garza is a key member of the band, you don’t hear a lot of guitar in the foreground: It’s piano and percussion of all kinds, mostly played by Apple and her drummer/co-producer Amy Aileen Wood, who is also a recording engineer.
It is not unusual for Apple to co-produce with her drummer. Her 2012 album, The Idler Wheel… was co-produced with drummer Charley Drayton, a charter member of Keith Richards’ X-Pensive Winos. For one track, “Valentine,” Drayton and Apple loved the sound of breaking glass so much that they recorded the sounds of a bottle recycling factory. The full name of that 2012 album is: The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, and oh, to have been a fly on the wall when she broke that news to the Epic Records marketing and album promotion staff.
So along with diction that can be cozy and warm or chilling and precise, there is the lovely racket of things being banged on. The song somewhat randomly titled “Newspaper” is just voice and “timpani, electronic drums, percussion,” for Apple, and drums by drummer Wood. Some songs sound like house parties where everyone is invited to bang on something: a can, a pair of sticks, spoon, bells and chimes, the clickety-clack of a joyous racket. There is also a song called “Drumset,” which is not an ode to the kit but the emptiness left by the one who used to play them.
As a gender-bending genre-bender (in “Shameika,” she is called “a good man in a storm”), there is no easy way to classify Apple. Writer Roy Trakin recently compared her to Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, so yeah, she’s that kind of rock. Left of center, idiosyncratic, with a blues flavor not rooted in anyone’s delta. You can’t cover Captain Beefheart (at least not well), but you can cover Waits, and dozens have, voluminously. I thought no one could cover Apple’s tunes until this record, which has some songs that could flow from the gutsy throat of a Bettye LaVette or Mavis Staples. These voices of experience would be necessary to really summon the ferocity of anger in “For Her,” which shakes a tree of bitter fruit: “Good morning,” starts the soulful howl in the chorus, “you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” The clattering vocal and rhythm sound like a field recording of a women’s prison chain gang. Fetch the bolt cutters.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Sachyn Mital.