[So when I was writing this, I forgot there was a word limit and wrote a lot more. Here’s the whole thing, tangents included.]
Fiona Apple’s “Hot Knife” doesn’t hit me quite as hard when I haven’t first listened to the rest of the album. It has something to do with tension and release, work and payoff. You don’t skip straight to the scene where Apple’s ex’s “There Will Be Blood” finally delivers on its promise. You don’t skip straight to the “na na na’s” of “Hey Jude,” you live through the verses confident they’re coming. (Picture for a second a Beatles cover band that plays through the verses and then switches to “I’m a Loser” or some shit—next morning outside the gates of the city: heads on stakes.) So it is with this Fiona record.
Every album of hers seems to purposely or accidentally chart a relationship, but the sequencing on the last record, Extraordinary Machine, was a mess. That record has a few of my favorite songs of hers, but they begged to be skipped to. The phantom edit EP in my head goes: Title track, Better Version, Tymps, Not About Love, Waltz. Sometimes “Get Him Back” sneaks in too. But there was no album momentum, no building toward anything. The Idler Wheel is the opposite, a sequencing triumph on par with her best album, When the Pawn. It’s so consciously and restlessly agitated—it’s no accident that the most nervy and “least listenable” song, “Regret,” comes right before the two-song release of “Anything We Want” and “Hot Knife.”
Implying, maybe, that the cycle has started over again. Here, look: a new man. Soon we will probably be given reason to hate the unnamed He, but for now he and our doomed singer have reduced each other to pads of butter. (At first, he’s the knife and she’s the butter, then they switch. When the relationship is going well, things are egalitarian.) I’m grateful for the reminder that in the bleak space of Fiona’s head, the happy part of love is even possible.
“Hot Knife” begins like the rest of the album: a piece of textured percussion. But when her voice shows up, it’s rhythmically locked-in, and it’s singing a sappy love metaphor that could have been at home in a Motown song. It registers as funny/surprising, not ironic, even as more voices (Fiona’s sister + a second Fiona) are piled onto each other. But this layering is as studio as the song gets–it threatens to explode into a full band and/or electronic hit but never extends beyond its constraints: voice, piano, and percussion. Which is to say: Somebody could make some good money adding a couple more instrumental tracks and firing it off to the radio stations. If they had the artist’s say-so. Which they won’t.