The Pitchforkian 100- and 50-layer Cake and the Belated Note to Moses
By Elena Vassilieva
Today, finally, I was going to congratulate Moses Sumney on his landing on the Pitchfork’s list of (arguably!) best songs and albums of 2020. The list flew to me on Twitter from the ecstatic Moses himself on the day he had spotted his name there, but I was too busy to pay close attention to it then. And when I glanced at it a few days later, I was so flushed with puzzlement and crashed with disappointment that it escaped me completely to send my congratulatory note to Moses. In fact, his position at #3 didn’t seem to me satisfactory either, given how good his double album græ is, culturally and politically motivated, handsomely produced, and adorned with his musing and soul-touching vocals. He should have been #1 among their musical choices, I thought. The laboriously arranged list of their crème de la crème made me wince, however, as it appeared to be, naturally, extremely subjective (read: endorsed by the Pitchfork cartel, of course, strictly figuratively speaking! God forbid!), but also very equivocal as for what criteria they had in mind whilst compiling it? Political message perhaps? Gender or race maybe? Emotional stability vs. instability, no? The pandemic mood? Commercial success? And what about the quality of the product itself, say, originality? Most names on the list are familiar faces, some are mainstream oriented, some are indie with a strong fandom. You would think the selection should be guided by the quality of the product in the first place, leaving all other factors off the radar, or not? I thought I’d still give it a shot, at least, to a handful of their 100.
I started with the #100, Ela Minus’ dominique, a rather pretty song about the exhausted self of the lonely insomniac, very neatly produced by Ela herself, with a terrific beat of the ex-drummer and a gracefully moving techno sound of the machine lover, with simple lyrics and pleasant vocals of “the half-human/half-machine” (Ela) that are eerily reminiscent of Still Corners’ Tessa Murray, particularly in the very beginning of the song. Whether it was a conscious homage to the Still Corners’ goddess of sensuality or a pure coincidence, is hard to say (the homage hasn’t been acknowledged; let me know if it has), but the startling likeness, obviously achieved through Ela’s beloved machines, didn’t agree with my taste. What is wrong with her own lovely voice, I couldn’t stop wondering, and gave another listen to her à la Sylvan Esso volcán (2016). I wish she would deploy her vocals the way they would become recognisable and associated with her artistic persona only. Alternatively, why not simply to hire the fancied vocalist herself? But the machine-cloned vocals that would remind the listener of a different (pretty much alive!) vocalist should hardly be encouraged. This is why dominique didn’t seem to be the most interesting choice from Minus’ very well-crafted “Acts of Rebellion” where she cleverly connected all the 10 pieces with the same sound thread.
After that I felt myself being catapulted into the #1 position, right to Fiona Apple, the topping of the Pitchfork’s cake. The intriguing percussion and piano intro of her I Want You to Love Me pleased my ear, but right after that song, I wished I had stopped someplace else before flying into this raging tempest. For instance, at the Weeknd’s Blinding Lights, everyone’s darling (although I prefer the Chromatics’ version of the song, so elegantly done by Johnny Jewel), or Helado Negro’s unpretentious and delicate I Fell in Love, or Fleet Foxes’ melodious and ubiquitous Sunblind (I only wish the production were less busy and more colourful here), or at Arca’s capriciously dashing Mequetrefe, or at the 1975’s uninspired and sarcastic If You Are Too Shy (Let Me Know), or at Drake’s sincere and reality-driven Laugh Now Cry Later, but a stop at Run the Jewels’ Just (ft. Pharrell Williams and Zack de la Rocha) is a must if you aren’t escaping the societal peripeteia and want to have an admiring look at how little it requires to send a very strong social message that is also very convincing and ear-pleasing aesthetically.
Fiona Apple, the topping, however, turned out to be a cacophonous theatre of one (I dare say bitter!) woman. In her own words, she is “pissed off, funny and warm.” The state of being “pissed off” seems to be the conceptual framework for her album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” where you will hardly find any fun or warmth, but you will witness the show of flying indulgently into a temper. And you would also bombard yourself continuously with the dilemma-like questions: If you love yourself, will you be loved? If you love people, will they also love you? But if you fall in love with someone, Cupid knows whether s/he will fall in love with you, too. You will have to take your chances. If you beg for forgiveness, can you also beg for love? No, it probably won’t do, not in the long run. On the other hand, you don’t want to run from love, it also won’t do, it will eventually haunt you like mad. All these heartbreaking banalities were circulating in my head while I was desperately trying to understand what her theatre is about and why on earth she tops the list?
Perhaps her character’s resentfulness and anger, presented here deliberately with such a bewildering aesthetical rawness, make her eligible for the crown of their list? The album has a striking similarity to her folksy Hot Knife (2013). Kudos to those artists who make efforts not to be self-repetitive, although it’s inevitable to repeat oneself, but if the repetitions are moderate and tasteful, they can be beneficial to both the listener and the artist. That peculiar ‘something’ that gives the listener pleasure and makes that particular sound identifiable and longed for, matters a great deal. There should be more to it than just an unrequited love wrapped in a cursed sand paper, I kept speculating as for Fiona Apple. Can it be that it’s just like Edvard Munck’s Der Schrei der Natur? Hmm. The sort of cabaret genre she had chosen for her album requires very good vocal acting, which, alas, isn’t offered here, in my view. The unconvincing acting simply ages her character prematurely, making it appear so uncontrollably vengeful and angry that it’s repelling. But maybe that was the aim?
Also, unlike the Pitchfork reviewer, except for the line “Running up the hill,” I’m not finding Kate Bush here, not even for a second and not even when inebriated by love or absinthe. But she must have listened to the music by Paul McCartney, The Beatles, XTC, and Tori Amos while working on the album as I hear them there, especially in I Want You to Love Me, and they are big shoes to fit. If her album is “boarding on literature,” as the Pitchfork reviewer said, then I’d like to scream louder than Fiona Apple and the Munck’s hero together: “Help! Help! Je n’y entends rien, cela me passe.” But, refusing to give up, my ultimate thought was that perhaps Fiona Apple decided to reflect on the Trumpian America with its frustrated, upset, resented, demoralised, depressed, and hysteria-clad democracy? But had she decided to impersonate America with all its frictions and self-inflicted wounds, wouldn’t it be there, in the lyrics? All the harsh words (“bang it, bite it, bruise it, kick me, evil,” e.g.) are pretty much limited to her personal space of disillusionment. (See Moses Sumney’s piece Cut for comparison.) To place her opus therefore in a political paradigm would’ve been too far from the truth, it would’ve been just my interpretive projection a priori, without a single proof found in her lyrics. Aesthetically, to the listener like myself, her album seems to be an enormously disappointing puzzle on the taste-maker’s (?) list, the Pitchfork cartel, that is. And what is to be done? To bake your own cake.
As for Moses, I couldn’t locate him anywhere in the Twitter space, not lately. Hmm, he must have vanished into thin air? After all that loud banging and screaming right above you, I’m not suprised, Moses. “In the meantime, we’ll get it straight. I hope our friendship can recuperate,” as you said it so well in your In Bloom.
(written in the Sky Control room, on the night of the winter solstice and the Great Conjunction, December 21, 2020)
Copyright © Elena Vassilieva 2021. All rights reserved.