“Kick me under the table all you want,” Fiona Apple sings on her marvelous new album Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.”
Boot her discreetly to silence her? Apple probably wears shin pads for just that reason.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a gloriously bluesy confrontation, with the audacity of hip-hop, the #MeToo movement’s outrage and the best use of a dog bark since Fleetwood Mac’s Hold Me in 1982. The music is immediate, structurally inventive, uniquely percussive and delivered with a confessional gusto that grabs you by the shoulders and won’t let go. Great album? It is. But that doesn’t fully explain why so many people are talking about it.
Epic Records released Fetch the Bolt Cutters on April 17, during a time when some artists are choosing to postpone their releases because of the disruptive effects of COVID-19 on the music industry. Tours have been called off. Promotional logistics have shifted drastically. Shell-shocked music fans are retreating to the music they know, not the new. With no daily car commutes, radio listenership has been affected.
Which is why A-listers Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys and B-lister Alanis Morissette have delayed their albums. A record release isn’t a one-day deal but a meticulous campaign on a presidential scale. Momentum is the key, and when, for example, a tour is postponed, a big part of the buzz-building machine breaks down. Record companies today bundle new albums with concert-ticket sales, thereby juicing first-week sales figures. But when there’s no blockbuster tour, the album numbers drop.
Apple is no Alicia, maybe not even an Alanis. She’s an angst-ridden New York singer-songwriter who hasn’t released an album since The Idler Wheel..., in 2012. But the anticipation of Fetch the Bolt Cutters was helped along by feature interviews in Vulture this month and The New Yorker last month.
Something else was in Apple’s favour: With fewer albums against which to compete for attention, great recent records by artists such as Apple and the Strokes (The New Abnormal, the band’s first in seven years) stand out all the more.
“I’ve been well aware of the Strokes record, and I wonder if I’d been as aware of it if we were in the regular pre-pandemic release cycles.” says Steve Waxman, longtime Warner Music publicist and now an industry consultant. “It’s something labels and artists have to consider. With fewer records out there, does that mean the laneway is clearer for us to release something now and make some noise?"
It’s easier for some artists to make a racket than it is for others. The streets were literally and metaphorically empty, for instance, when Bob Dylan released his epic single Murder Most Foul on March 27. Think of a Studebaker automobile, speakers on the roof and hanging out the windows, blaring a political candidate’s message. The car rolls down a quiet street. People drop what they’re doing and stand on their porches, wondering what the commotion is all about.
Albums are much more complicated than a Dylan single. British musician Steven Wilson, who is signed to Toronto’s Arts & Crafts label, postponed his album The Future Bites from June 12 to Jan. 29, 2021. Describing his forthcoming sixth LP as a “high concept project,” Wilson in a statement about the postponement cited challenges including manufacturing issues, video shoots and the “uncertainty facing record stores."
He was referring to indie shops and large retailers such as HMV, which have temporarily closed. Sunrise Records, the dominant chain in Canada, has shut not only its doors but its online business as well. And with online-only retailers such as Amazon focusing on home essentials rather than music, overall physical sales of CDs and LPs have plummeted.
It all inspires the unanswerable if-a-tree-falls-in-the-forest question Apple alludes to I Want You to Love Me, a love song to someone she has yet to meet and the opening cut on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. “I know none of this will matter in the long run," she sings over a rolling, pastoral piano motif. “But I know a sound is still a sound around no one."
No argument here. There’s nobody around Apple for miles, and yet she is heard, louder and clearer than ever.
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