In the grand tradition of “our favorite songs were released like a year ago”:
Britt Alderfer: “Hot Knife” only employs skeletal, precise instrumentation — I think of it as a kind of jazz carcass? — in the service of the swoops and dives of Fiona’s voice. The timpani drum sounds like someone lumbering off in the far distance, as timpani often do, not intruding. Less than a third features any piano. The strongest sense of accompaniment here is other voices, singing different lyrics at different points in the song than Fiona to form a choral round like children doing “Row Your Boat” in music class. All this, or should I say the song lacking all else, gets you to focus on those swoony, sharp-image lyrics: “He makes my heart a cinemascope screen / Showing a dancing bird of paradise.” Clean as a hot knife and still overwhelming, just like love.
Brad Shoup: Right, this is the one what sounded like Apple singing over the “Do You Remember” drums from opposite ends of an elevator shaft. The effect is muted martial. I’m still not convinced of her excitement; I feel like both of us are being worked on. And anyway, she sings it like that’s a pretty big “if”. Her existential saloon piano jumps in halfway, offering an escape from this rut, like a hole drawn on wall in a cartoon. Because no one else under 40 in pop has the culinary training to prepare a decent jazz infusion, and because her sister sounds great, and because I’m reading irony into this, I’m going to be generous scoring this late single.
Alfred Soto: It took effort to return to me to a July exactly a year ago when this ruse fooled me: it’s not “spare,” not when Apple multitracks herself as if worried she can’t cut through the tray of Land O’ Lakes.
Anthony Easton: This might be the least sexy song about fucking that Fiona Apple has ever recorded. It has some nursery rhyme energy in places, and in other places it’s like one of those 1960s avant/art music repeat-everything-until-it-loses-meaning things, but it’s not as rambling as that. It has a fun tautness, which seems a bit new.
Katherine St Asaph: The least Fiona Apple song Fiona Apple’s ever done (I include “Tymps” in this); it’s as if Apple had some improv cabaret show where some joker commissioned a cross between Julie Feeney, Feist doing “Sea Lion Woman” and Betty Botter — as a love song. As much as I wish the market supported the thornier fuck-off stuff of The Idler Wheel as singles, “he makes my heart a cinemascope screen showing a dancing bird of paradise” is the second-best lyric on the album (first being “orotund mutt/moribund slut,” obvs), and there’s enough tension between the drums, off-tune piano and vaguely phallic premise to complicate matters. I’m convinced the role reversal is wishful thinking: testing and turning a bit of power
Cédric Le Merrer: The one best thing about this song is the switch that occurs around one minute in. Suddenly, she’s the hot knife and he’s the butter. Because you ain’t truly happy if you’re not making your lover happy too. Every songwriter attempting to write a song about love should do this. Or at least more of them should.
David Lee: The corollary metaphors here are startling enough — the crazed bird flapping in your heaving ribcage, the way passion and attraction seem to pick at any locks keeping wild films of emotion hidden away: these are images painted with deliberate, vivid strokes. But it’s the extended metaphor, the arc of this tightly wound song, that showcases Fiona’s talents as a musician and a writer. Take the diction, for instance. A pat of butter works perfectly given the song’s push for brevity: in just over four minutes it covers the initial contact between knife and butter, the conclusion of liquified, fatty goodness, and all the heat exchange in between. A slab would be too unwieldy; a plate too inexact. “Hot Knife”‘s musical flourishes dovetail well with this visual and flesh out a tangible progression of feelings. At first they’re a low kettle-drum rumble, and any yelp of excitement betrays strained neck muscles and gritted teeth. This is on some “my body’s saying let’s go/but my heart is saying no” shit. Cold butter, after all, doesn’t have much give. And as the song gains momentum, the temperature rises, the phase change progressing ever closer to a full-throated, dizzy harmony of emotions racing against each other: “I want this person to relax around me,” “I’m going to claim this person as mine,” “UNADULTERATED ALL CAPS BLISS.” Considering that Fiona manages all this while remaining concise, it’s terrifying to imagine her penning, say, a 500-word college application essay.
Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: Before the flurry of words, Apple makes thunderbolts out of piano chords and sex out of timpani rolls. Once the flurry begins, she revels in how wonderfully alien the English language can becomes through insistent rerun, an intense tick and admission where vowels and syllables fade away. There’s something to be said for repetition. There’s something to be said for repetition. There’s something to be said for repetition.
John Seroff: Some songs compel with complexity, others succeed in simplicity. A precious few tightrope both at once, and that trick may be key to the art of creating music that taps into the sound of timelessness, the province of stadium chants, jump rope and first love. “Hot Knife” performs the simple magic of sounding as if it has always been and always will be new, its military march kettle drums always crisply pressed, the nursery rhyme rounds always jigsaw tight and bell clear, that piano line always rousing, the sharpness of Fiona’s last syllable of “him” always hinting at a degree of perilous doubt. This was one of my very favorite singles of 2012, and it’s lovely to welcome it into the new year, however late. I don’t mind waiting for the eternal.