Fiona Apple is perfect. At least, according to everyone else.
A little over a week past the release of her fifth studio album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the 42-year-old wunderkind-turned-wundergrownup is experiencing a rare form of universal acclaim.
Apple’s new record received a near-mythic 10.0 from Pitchfork, the site’s first perfect score in a decade. A.V. Club, which called the album a “zenith of liberation and experimentation,” awarded it a similarly unimpeachable “A.” On review aggregator Metacritic, the record has a literal score of 100 (which to be clear, is very good).
To analyze what makes Apple’s sprawling, barrier-shattering, genre-demolishing, dog-barking emotional juggernaut so great is, at this point, almost useless. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a success in every sense of the word — Billboard charts and meme gods included. It is, according to approximately 99 percent of the known universe, perfect.
But what does perfect mean? And, more importantly, does it matter? And maybe even more importantly, does answering those questions matter?
It’s almost impossible to know for sure, simply because music criticism, by its nature, doesn’t deal in perfect. That’s why everyone from Beethoven to Led Zeppelin managed to ear stunningly negative write-ups throughout their careers. Critics, and by an extension fans, exist to decide what’s bad, what’s good and what’s best. But if almost everything doesn’t fall into those first two categories, then the third becomes meaningless.
In all likelihood, the last perfect album was the one that snagged Pitchfork’s 10.0 stamp before Apple did. That record was Kaye West’s nearly undisputed magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Dark Fantasy was similarly adored following its release in 2010, and today it remains Metacritic’s 12th best-reviewed record of all time (Bolt Cutters is currently No. 1). The reviews of the album, which topped nearly every best-of list that year, are so gargantuanly praiseworthy that they’re almost intoxicating to read.
Slate said the record was already one of hip-hop’s all-time peaks. Consequence of Sound called it a “game-changer.” The BBC went even further, writing that the album’s “only flaw is that its scale is so awe-inspiring it tends to paper over any weaker cracks.”
So does perfection pay off? In Kanye’s case, the answer was a resounding hell yeah. It was widely seen as West’s comeback — a dramatic, mind-blowing return from the ashes of his now-infamous appearance at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
And it’s aged even better: Dark Fantasy was rated the best album of the decade by more mainstream music publications than not, earning the honor from Rolling Stone, Billboard, A.V. Club, GQ and the New York Post, just to name a few.
Should any of that matter to Fiona Apple? Bolt Cutters, just like Dark Fantasy, started a new decade with a consensus-winning bang. It might even be headed for a similar end-of-decade coronation — but if it is, Apple could probably care less.
The notoriously withdrawn singer has made few public statements on the album, let alone its reception. And when she has spoken on Bolt Cutters, Apple has been nothing but business — describing only her inspiration and barebones recording process.
Those choice words have made it clear that Apple crafted this album with zero regard for whether or not people would love it.
“A lot of it is just pressing ‘record’ and seeing what comes out,” Apple told Vulture. It’s sitting down before writing a song and writing out lists of memories you have, or writing down things I’ve done that I don’t agree with.”
“There’s some footage of me, when I’m 18, of somebody asking me, ‘What is your motto?’ or something like that,” she continued. “And I know that at some point I said, ‘Always question your motives.’ I always questioned my motives. And there are times when I’ve slipped and I haven’t. That’s when I ended up doing and saying things I regret later.”
An album with no regrets, one that gives completely to artistic ambition, certainly sounds like a formula for perfection. But again, should Fiona Apple — or anyone for that matter — care what perfection means?