FIONA APPLE – FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS album review

FIONA APPLE – FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS

Epic, 2020

Art pop/Singer-songwriter

When Fiona Apple drops a new album, the world stops and listens. I almost didn’t want to review this album because it would just be another in the massive pile of Fiona Apple reviews coming out, all of them heaping praise upon praise on it. But at the same time, I almost feel a responsibility to, because we never know when the next album is coming. When The Idler Wheel… came out, reviewing new music was an idea that I had only toyed with. And yes, I will be praising this album, but hopefully not in the same ways as others.

What we have here is a rare situation where there’s actually something to the hype. Apple might have only released five albums over the course of 24 years, but nothing in her catalog is bad or even mediocre. Bolt Cutters is not only the latest in a line of consistently excellent albums, but some of her best work yet. Structurally, the album still sounds very much like a Fiona Apple album. The art pop and rock songs that reject standard song structures are built around the piano and Apple’s unique brand of lyricism. Despite not holding to typical structures, the songs are not so artistic or experimental as to chase listeners away, a mark of a truly skillful experimental songwriter.

Something a little new for this album is the very raw and almost DIY sound of the recordings. Some tracks were, indeed, recorded at Apple’s own home and this raw feeling is only emphasized by the reflective echoes from walls and the barking of dogs. The percussion plays a role in this too as it sounds very loose and even like it was played on improvised objects like boxes and shelves. This all serves as a fitting backdrop to some of the rawest, and sometimes angriest, lyrics of Apple’s career.

Which is a nice transition to what we really need to talk about and the main reason you listen to Fiona Apple. She is a truly gifted lyricist. She has a talent for sharing her thoughts plainly and with authority and they still make sense lyrically in the context of a song. This album brings us brilliant lines like:

People like us get so heavy and so lost sometimes

So lost and so heavy that the bottom is the only place we can find

You get dragged down, down to the same spot enough times in a row

The bottom begins to feel like the only safe place that you know

“Heavy Balloon”

I mean, holy shit! Do I even have to say anymore? Actually I probably should because there’s a lot to unpack here. I said before that this album finds Apple in a very raw and sometimes angry place. She’s extremely honest about how different people and situations make her feel. This ranges from predators and people who take advantage of others for their own gain (“Relay” and “Under the Table”), to feeling a connection with the new partner of an abusive ex (“Newspaper”), to breaking yourself out of emotional prisons (“Fetch the Bolt Cutters”), to just venting about someone who left (“Drumset”). This is just scratching the surface, nearly every track on this album takes you through something that Fiona has experienced herself, and she guides you along in the way that only she can.

Now comes the big question. There are a lot of publications and reviewers that have given Fetch The Bolt Cutters a perfect score. So we have to ask, is it a perfect album? For me, personally, it’s not. It really is fantastic, but there are just a couple things that keep it short of that coveted ace. First off there’s the raw recording. Most of the time it’s a positive feature and helps with the feel of the album, but there are a few instances where it hurts rather than helps. And second, there are a couple tracks with repeated lyrics that come dangerously close to going too far with the repetition. But those are really my only complaints.

Overall, this really is a fantastic album. With this being only her fifth album, Fiona Apple makes a strong case for quality over quantity. This album has a raw and unpolished sound that complements Apple’s raw and honest lyrics. She expresses anger, sadness, frustration, and longing in ways that only she can; plainly and yet, somehow eloquently at the same time. I hope we don’t have to wait eight more years for more music, but even if we do, it’ll be worth the wait.

4.5/5.0

JOHN REUBEN – self titled album review

JOHN REUBEN – self titled

self released, 2020

Hip-hop

In the very first lines of his 2017 comeback album Reubonic, John Reuben says “They say the best art comes from an unhealthy place/So this will be the last record that I’ll ever make.” Given that it’s 2020 and I’m reviewing a new John Reuben album, this prediction clearly didn’t come true and it might be because he’s still in an unhealthy place. Now I certainly hope that isn’t the case, but either way, I’m happy that there is more John Reuben music in the world.

I’m just going to be up front and admit from the start that I am pretty biased in favor of Reuben’s music. I’ve been a fan of his since the mid 2000s and I could honestly write an entire separate post about why (and maybe I will). I’ll try to keep my fanboying to a minimum and focus on the review. This new self titled album is Reuben’s eighth and it finds him back in what you might call his “traditional” form, especially when compared to the darker and almost industrial tone of Reubonic. Reuben has always operated from a strong position of self-awareness. He’s never really tried to be something that he’s not, and that honesty has permeated into his beats and lyrics. These attributes are on full display on John Reuben, and I personally believe it’s his best album in many years.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the first track on this album for an example of what I’m talking about. On “Secular Music,” Reuben raps humorously about the culture of youth group concerts and about how he was what the kids were allowed to listen to instead of “secular” music. This track is funny to anyone who grew up in this culture, but it’s especially funny to me because I actually saw Reuben perform at a youth group concert. The self awareness continues into the second track, “Cheer Up” where Reuben acknowledges his own corniness but uses it to encourage people to lighten up and enjoy themselves.

But another notable thing about John Reuben is he’s not afraid to get heavier. He doesn’t shy away from the tough subjects, and it only takes three tracks to get there on this album. “Other People” covers the complicated relationships that people can have with their heritage and identities, both from the black and white perspective with guest rapper Alon offering the unique point of view of a black man with Haitian heritage. Other heavy topics include religious practices that turn people away in bitterness and how God is often invoked in destructive political actions (“Still Something” and “God’s Politics”).

Reuben offers lighter criticism of the rapid-fire way we live our lives and consume media in the modern age (“Highlight Reel”), people who use and obsess over personality profiling tests like the enneagram to define themselves (“You’ll Get Your Wings”), and how evangelicals are too eager for the end of the world rather than trying to create more of a heaven on earth (“Here on Earth”). Finally, throughout the album there are more instances of lightheartedness and positivity like a petition for unity, a track about his friendship with Alon, and an ode to nostalgia (“Off Key,” “Call and Responsey,” and “Looking at Now”). Alon provides guest verses on six of the eleven tracks on this album, and he has clear chemistry with Reuben. He has no trouble matching the tone and mood of the track, complementing Reuben like “brie and salami” as they say on “Call and Responsey.”

Another signature of John Reuben’s is his unique instrumentals. Especially in the second half of his career, he pulls a lot of inspiration from pop rock and indie, with his beats using samples of live instruments like guitars and even the occasional banjo. Seth Earnest returns as the producer on this self titled record and he occasionally brings some of the more electronic influence that defined Reubonic. And Reuben isn’t immune to the influence of modern hip hop with a couple tracks employing cicada hi-hats and beat switches, though one of those beat switches is to a more subdued acoustic guitar instrumental only a third into the track on “Still Something.” The bottom line is this album sounds exactly like what you’d expect from a modern John Reuben album.

Overall I think this is a very strong release from John Reuben. To paraphrase The Dark Knight, I’ve always kind of felt that Reuben isn’t the artist that Christian hip hop needs, but the one that they deserve. After figuring out who he was and creating a unique brand for himself, he used his platform to say things that he believed needed to be said. Some of his lyrics might bring up topics that would make more conservative evangelicals bristle, but in the end all he’s doing is encouraging us to be more like Christ. This record gives us that John Reuben brand for the modern era. My only real criticism is that some songs are presented in such a way that the humor might be lost on some people and give them the wrong impression. But apart from that, this easily ranks among some of his best releases like The Boy vs. The Cynic and Word of Mouth. I’m entirely biased, but I don’t care. It’s a great album.

4.0/5.0

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – GHOSTEEN album review

NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – GHOSTEEN

Ghosteen Ltd./Bad Seed Ltd., 2019

Alternative rock/Ambient

I really could not have asked for a better year to start reviewing music. Several artists have put out their best work so far, others have released comeback albums (some good, some bad), others still have released very impressive debuts, I’ve even had the delightful pleasure of ripping a few albums to shreds. And now, in addition to all that, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds release a new album. What a time to be alive.

Nick Cave is an Australian singer and songwriter who has been active for over 40 years. He started in a noisy garage rock band that eventually became the post-punk band The Birthday Party. After this band broke up in the mid-’80s, he formed the Bad Seeds, a band whose approach to Gothic rock is more Flannery O’Connor than Siouxsie Sioux. He has a penchant for writing 7 minute songs with graphic lyrics about love, death, and God, and he’s one of the most revered lyricists in rock music. Cave is an artist for fans who value songwriting. He’s almost universally loved by music nerds, similar to other songwriters like Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits.

Ghosteen is the seventeenth studio album released by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and I’m honestly a little nervous to be reviewing it. I’ve joked on social media that I feel like my reputation as a music nerd and reviewer is on the line. Cave’s music is often met with critical acclaim, and before I ever had a chance to listen to Ghosteen, five publications had given it a perfect score. If I’m perfectly honest, I wasn’t very familiar with Cave’s music going into this. I always had a respect for it and knew a handful of songs, but never did a deep dive into the discography or any single album. So this review has a bit more research behind it than others.

Cave says that Ghosteen completes a trilogy started with 2013’s Push the Sky Away and 2016’s Skeleton Tree, but it pairs better stylistically with the latter. Cave’s teenage son tragically died while Skeleton Tree was being recorded, and many view the album’s stark, ambient, and experimental backing and its more abstract and poetic lyrics as reactionary and a catharsis for Cave in the wake of the tragedy. Ghosteen has similarly sparse and ambient instrumentals and poetic lyrics, but dissonance and the raw pain of loss are replaced with hope and beauty.

Long-time Bad Seed Warren Ellis works with Cave to craft ambient soundscapes with analog synthesizers at their foundation. These are frequently more inviting than those on Skeleton Tree, but no less somber. At times they even sound spacey, like the soundtrack to a sci-fi film from the ’70s. Little more makes up the instrumentals of this album; piano appears on several tracks and there’s an occasional flourish of strings.

Lyrically, Ghosteen again continues in a similar vein to Skeleton Tree. Where the majority of Cave’s lyrics in the past were more narrative, focusing on characters and the dark situations that develop them, his recent output has been comparatively more abstract, striking at an emotion rather than a story. The theme of Ghosteen again is grief, but instead of the raw and visceral reaction in the moment of tragedy as heard on Skeleton Tree, these are the songs of someone who has had a few years to process that grief. Many of the lyrics have to do with coming to terms with the reality of what has happened (“Sun Forest,” “Ghosteen,” and “Hollywood”) or the support one seeks and needs from loved ones in these moments (“Waiting for You” and “Leviathan”). There’s even a track where it appears the spirit of Cave’s son is speaking with him, reminding him that he is still with him in some way (“Ghosteen Speaks”).

Truly, one of the great triumphs of Ghosteen is the title track that opens the second part of the double album. It’s a 12 minute epic that effortlessly moves between synth-laden ambiance, piano balladry, and occasional hints of prog. Cave’s allegorical lyrics take you on a journey through the pain and grief and eventual acceptance in the aftermath of a great loss. It’s a great distillation of the emotions and themes of the tracks that came before.

My only criticism is that in the first couple spins of this album, the tracks “Ghosteen Speaks” and “Leviathan,” the closing moments of the first part, seemed weak in comparison to the rest of the album with the former’s ghostly wails and the latter’s repetitive refrain. However, further listening and analysis revealed the purpose for these decisions and the songs began to make more sense in the context of the album as a whole.

Scoring this album has been exceedingly difficult. On one hand, understanding the context and doing a proper deep dive into the album and its lyrics is very rewarding. It offers a beautiful and poignant expression of loss and grief in a way that only Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds can provide, and the experience is enhanced when it’s paired with Skeleton Tree. However not every listener is going to do the work required to see that. Despite all its beauty and craftsmanship, Ghosteen is not necessarily accessible or a joyful listen, and that might put some listeners off. There’s also no denying that, while it makes sense in the context of the album, “Leviathan” is the weakest track. None of this changes my opinion that Ghosteen is probably the closest thing to a perfect album that I’ve heard this year.

4.5/5.0