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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Some of us just want to be loved


Fiona Apple just wants to be loved.

She tries to say as much on the first cut of “Fetch the Bolt Cutters:” “I want somebody to want / and I want what I want and I want / You to love me.”

And it’s love she’s received, from critics across the board, the most lavish (and unexpected) of which comes from Pitchfork, a music site whose only claim to love is the extent to which people love to hate it.

Pitchfork, ever the stingy publication, has decided, for the first time since Kanye West released “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” in 2010, to express its love unambiguously, rewarding “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” a full 10 out of 10 on the Pitchfork scale.

The sudden gush of praise begs the question: Why now?

Why, after over nearly a decade of new music — much of which was spectacular — did Pitchfork wait until “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” to deem an album not just good or really good or very good or even great but absolutely f---ing perfect?

“No music has ever sounded quite like it,” Jenn Pelly, who reviewed “Bolt Cutters” for the website, writes. “It creates a wild symphony of the everyday.”

It’s the record’s parochial scope — personal lyricism, homegrown instrumentation and production techniques — in combination with the seismic scale of its presence in our cultural moment (one in which “the game is rigged, power is corrupt, and society is, in a word bulls—t," Pelly writes) that renders its contents perfect, Pitchfork seems to say.

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” the last album to score a 10 from Pitchfork, won the picky publication’s affections for reasons entirely different.

It was Kanye’s “blast of surreal pop excess,” which explored “previously uncharted locales, far away from typical civilization,” that Pitchfork considered pitch perfect, according to reviewer Ryan Dumbal. The record found flawlessness by mythologizing on a massive scale.

Though it seems “Twisted Fantasy” and “Bolt Cutters”  offer two competing definitions of perfection — creating, as such, a contradiction ready made to discredit Pitchfork’s oft-maligned writing staff — both make sense given the circumstances of their respective publications.

“Twisted Fantasy” arrived two years into the Obama presidency, at the point in the exponential curve (the beginning of a promising decade) when hope (much needed in the dregs of the 2008 financial crisis) transformed into real, meaningful progress before the world's eyes. The record represented a new Enlightenment of sorts, proffering evidence of art’s capacity to pull myth (the object of hope) into the arms of reality. To listen to “Twisted Fantasy” in 2010 was to feel limitless. The opening lyric says it all: “Can we get much higher?” For Pitchfork, the answer was, apparently, no. An unbounded aesthetic, in light of upward trajectories, constituted perfection.

Following in “Twisted Fantasy’s” footsteps, “Bolt Cutters” ushers in a new decade, though Apple’s efforts appear to have dropped from pop heaven into a primordial s---heap, seasoned with widespread death and suffering, topped with a rotten, racist, sexist, homophobic, unintelligent and utterly incompetent orange peel. “Bolt Cutters,” like the rest of us, feels angry and trapped. Having been in isolation for so long (it’s the reclusive Apple’s first release since 2012’s “The Idler Wheel”), it doesn’t quite know how to connect with humans. When it speaks, it sounds anxious, disturbed. It has lost all hope, all mythic aspirations, leaving only the most basic of desires — love — to fend for itself.

“Bolt Cutters’” fundamental need to be loved, and the fraught mechanics through which it tried to obtain that love, places Apple’s record in league with “Twisted Fantasy.” Behind “Twisted Fantasy” stood an outsized ego — an anti-Taylor Swift — whose unapologetic sense of himself, his abilities, alienated fragile listeners who’d sought agreeableness in their pop music and stars. Kanye’s inflated ego, large enough to encapsulate but not quite envelop the depth and breadth of his musical capabilities, tried to generate the love he desired (and felt he deserved) through sheer self-determination. Ultimately, this unrestrained exercise in ego building earned more love for the art than the artist (whose most recent release, “Christ is King,” shows a king-sized ego in free fall). But it was nothing if not human, and, inextricably, reflective of its time.

“Bolt Cutters’” approaches “Twisted Fantasy’s” desired destination — love — from internal avenues. Its discomfort stems from neither an abrasive ego (Apple is not active on social media; she self-isolated before the virus was an issue) nor competition in the limelight (which Apple hasn’t occupied in any real capacity since the ‘90s). They sprout, instead, from the difficulties that ensue when a quiet, introspective and idiosyncratic soul wants to make itself heard. These growing pains begin as whispers — the unbelievably addictive hooks and fat-free lyrics on the record’s opening track, “I Want You to Love Me.” The whispers build throughout the song, the record, beginning as plain spoken statements, expanding into shouted commands and, eventually, mutating into (deftly executed) primal noises; at the same time, dissonance takes control of the mix. Once “Bolt Cutters” begins, Apple’s poetic prowess spearheads homemade percussions instruments, jazz-infused melodies and wildly unconventional song structures as they sink into the heart of a cultural moment that needs to die right f---ing now, however painful its demise might be (for both the target and its killer).

“Fetch the bolt cutters,” Apple sings. “I’ve been here too long.”

Consider her chains broken. Our cultural moment doesn’t stand a chance.

We return now to our initial “Why?”

Why now? Why has “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” achieved Pitchfork perfection when so many others haven’t?

I think it’s because Apple, like Pitchfork, just wants to be loved, and, she, like Pitchfork, doesn’t quite know how to get there.

Pitchfork springs for artists whose insecurities match their own: artists who find it hard to eschew a certain flare for the avant-garde (like Apple) or inflate their ego (as Kanye does) to obtain affection.

The publication awarded Apple and Kayne marks of perfection, not because they were perfect, but because they were imperfect in just the right way, at just the right time. By loving these albums — asking others to love them too — Pitchfork is trying to tell us something.

Pitchfork just wants to be loved.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the release date for Kanye West's album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” as 2002, rather than 2010. The Observer regrets this error.