Track

Werewolf

Artist

Fiona Apple

Album

The Idler Wheel…

“Werewolf” is built around a solitude. Though it is, like most love songs, addressed to a specific “you,” there’s a sonic trick at the beginning of it: A click, creak, and slam that is most likely the lid of a piano, but which sounds exactly like a closing door. No matter how much the song tries to address someone else, or how many other musicians it brings in, the closed door defines it. It always sounds like a woman talking to no-one, all alone.

Not just alone, but lonely. The piano sounds dusty, tinny, more than a little worn-out; you can hear the wood rattle and rumble whenever she lands on the bass. Fiona Apple’s voice, when it comes in, creaks with resignation. And, although we know Apple can write and play riffs that are dazzling in their complexity, most of this particular song is a tired, bare four-note waltz. Not only is she talking to someone who can’t hear her any more, not only is she alone, but there’s something about the song itself that is just bled dry, depleted.

Which is to say: It’s exhausted, this song. It’s been up all night. It’s come home to an empty room. And now, when we meet it, the song is finally at the scraped-raw five-in-the-morning moment when it has to settle down and put itself to bed. Sometimes the truth comes only in that pre-dawn exhaustion; the moment where there’s no fight or filter left, and you finally come to the one conclusion you’ve been trying to avoid. Everything you thought it would kill you to believe:

I could liken you to a werewolf, the way you left me for dead,

But I admit that I provided a full moon.

When this song came out, the shock of that second line was what people responded to, wrote blog posts and FIONA GROWS UP headlines about; the fact that Fiona Apple, the world’s most intimidating and eloquent conveyor of stories about what a dick you have to be to hurt Fiona Apple’s feelings, came up with a first line about how her ex-boyfriend was a monster, and decided not to run with it. Now, it’s worn off a bit.

So it’s important to remember: It can take the hardest work of your life to get from that first line to the second one. When you’ve really lost someone – lost them in the way “Werewolf” describes, the kind of loss where it’s not just that you can’t be together, it’s that you can’t even be in the same room – everything in you argues against it. Every permanent separation is the rehearsal of a death. But losing someone, and blaming yourself, is the rehearsal of a murder. Or of being killed: Someone has looked around, at the world, and decided that it would be a better world if you weren’t in it. To imagine someone thinking that of you at all, let alone someone that you care about, hurts like nothing else. It’s annihilating, it’s humiliating, it’s a trap in which each bit of love you have for that person amplifies and becomes a new means to hate yourself. And in the moment, all you can think is: You left me for dead. You fucking monster. End of line, end of sentence, end of song. The last thing you can do, if you want to hold on to the few precious shreds of self-esteem or survival instinct you’ve got left, is admit that you might have had it coming.

The power of this song is that it spans, in about three seconds, one of the biggest emotional leaps a person can take. And then, it settles down to the infinitely more difficult business of letting go.

***

As I say: Fiona Apple has written a lot of intensely angry songs, in her lifetime. She’s claimed that she can’t actually cope with certain feelings until she writes about them. The entire 90-word title to When The Pawn, for just one infamous example, came while she was reading nasty press coverage of herself: “I thought, ‘I’m gonna lose my mind if I don’t write something,’ because that’s what I do when I feel weak or overwhelmed.” So what you’re hearing, when you hear her play a particularly harsh song, is someone who is not just doing this to describe her anger, but someone who is doing this to have her anger. These songs carry the charge of necessity, and despite how elaborate her lyrics and structures sometimes are, they sound immediate and unfiltered. One thing we’re not used to, from this woman, is under-writing, or serenity, or removed objectivity. “Werewolf” is startling, not just because of what it says, but because of who says it.

It also coexists, on this album, with what I would argue is the angriest, cruelest, rawest song she has ever recorded. You can’t consider “Werewolf” without considering “Regret.” These are the good and evil twins of Idler Wheel; each song is about a relationship where people bring out the very worst in each other. But each one takes the opposite course of action. 

“Werewolf” comes in when a relationship is unsalvageable; “Regret” talks about why it was not saved. “Werewolf” is backing out; “Regret” is confrontation. “Werewolf” is the exhaustion of an aftermath; “Regret” is the countdown to an explosion.

It’s a frightening song: Just the thudding, ticking clock and the sound of a woman recounting offenses through gritted teeth, asking you if you remember this, and if you remember that, and do you remember when you did that, until it all just erupts in an apocalyptic scream. Also notable: Of all the songs on Idler Wheel, these are the songs with monsters on them. In “Werewolf,” she admits that she’d like to call him one. In “Regret,” she does: 

Now when you look at me

You’re condemned to see

The monster your mother made you to be.

And there, you got me,

That’s how you got free, you got rid of me.

And then it’s just that gut-torn, awful scream. Correction: The scream and the declaration that everything “you” say is just “hot piss that comes through your mouth” and the serial-killer falsetto chanting and the overwhelming conviction on the part of the listener that oh, my God, someone must intervene here, someone must at all costs get these two people away from each other, now.

But “Regret” says, in that final verse, the exact thing that “Werewolf” is built around trying not to say: You left me, and that makes you a monster, and fuck you for doing it, and fuck you. The song is alsofilled with the same self-vindication and righteous blaming that “Werewolf” explicitly disowns: She took care of him when he was sick and he didn’t appreciate it, she tried to be his friend and he shamed her for it, she was never cruel in her life before she met him, she has never had cause to regret anything in her life before him, she’s been so patient, and so giving, and so selfless, and now, now that he’s “taught [her] to be mean,” she’s being mean, and that’s his fault too.

But that’s bullshit. You don’t get away from “Regret” with clean hands. You just don’t. At a certain point, it doesn’t actually matter whose fault it is, who introduced the cruelty; you’re both being cruel, you’re both awful, and you both make each other worse. You didn’t call someone’s voice “hot piss” and make fun of his fucked-up relationship with his mom because he was mean, you did that because you were. Nobody came into the room and fed you those lines; nobody threatened to shoot your dog unless you said that. No matter how many times the guy got sick and you made him soup, no matter how many favors he didn’t return or appreciate, no matter how many times you tried to be kind and selfless, and no matter how many times you succeeded, on that day, in that moment, you made the choice to be a really mean person.

Which Fiona Apple no doubt knows to be true. Look at the title of the song. But staying in that place, the safe place where all your fuck-ups were someone else’s fault, is one of the many things people do to avoid letting go of something important. “Werewolf” is the song that refuses her the option. It pushes her out of the safe space blame holds, and makes her go clean up her mess.

***

As the title might indicate, “Werewolf” is a song about transformations. But more specifically, it’s a song about writing; about the power of being able to construct a narrative, or turn a person into a character. She’s consciously holding that power in reserve, for most of the song. I could liken you to: A werewolf, a shark, a chemical. But she never holds on to any one image. It’s a song, on some level, about resisting her own ability to write a different version of the song. She holds it in her hand, the power to reduce him to language, to a description of his impact on her; she turns it this way and that way, shows you all the ways it could work, and then lets it drop.

She also lets that power condemn her. Its restraint lies, not just in what she won’t call him, but in what she will call herself:  I could call you / but then I’d be, is the entire verse structure. It’s a song that insists, if not on self-blame, then at least on blame’s reciprocity. Werewolf, full moon. Shark, bleeding wound. Chemical, chemical, reaction. There is no curse that does not implicate her in turn.

And even this act of identity is less important than the heart of the song, its quiet, certain gut-punch. Her real, non-analogy-based identity takes an entire song to ascertain: She’s a “sensible girl,” sensible in that she knows better than to keep making analogies. She only gets herself back when she resists the pull of her own language. But his real, non-metaphorical identity is central and continual, the statement that brings you into every chorus: You are such a super guy.

In a song that’s entirely about reciprocity and the identifying power of words, it’s worth noting that one identity in here remains distinctly unequal. Super outweighs sensible every time.

***

Then again: “But you are such a super guy, until the second you get a whiff of me” is the full line. It’s a tricky one. It doesn’t have the dazzling, look-at-me-writing quality of certain lyrics. (“You made your major overtures when you were a sure and orotund mutt / and I was still a dewy petal, rather than a moribund slut” is the big show-stopper on this album.) But it manages to pack in a lot of complicated information. This song is essentially the nicest, most generous, most loving and lavishly self-blaming way someone has ever tried to convey the sentiment “I hope to never see you again.” But it’s never false. It’s never some cheap “it’s not you, it’s me” pre-packaged absolution. Real self-blame never sounds like that, and neither does real forgiveness; those are just lines you repeat because they sound like what you’d like to think you think. This is actual forgiveness, the hard-fought and earnest thing; it’s complicated and double-sided and comes with a long list of clauses.

The basic thrust of this line in context, if you map it out – and watch how hard it gets, how well she’s had to choose her words to make this sound simple – is that her emotion says it’s you, but her brain says it is also her, but she admires and believes in you immensely because you are a notably amazing person, but you have notably not been amazing in regard to her, but that might very well be her own personal flaws and failures which quite rightfully cause you to react in that way, so she needs some distance, because she likes you so much, and she is trying to take care of herself, while doing you a favor.

That’s a lot to say; that’s a complicated, infinitely fuck-uppable set of thoughts to attempt, and if you screw it up, it either reads “fuck you, asshole” or “please blame me for everything, you can do no wrong.” You have get it exactly right in order to say it at all. She makes it sound like a tossed-off line.

And if you look closely, you can see it resonate on on another level. She’s breaking her promise not to call him one particular name. She’s said he’s not a werewolf, and that it would be wrong to insist he is, but she’s only human, and: What changes from mild to vicious at the drop of a hat? What becomes aggressive when it gets a “whiff” (careful, animal word placement) of its natural enemy? In seventeen words, and two clauses, she’s got that guy going from Joe Normal “great dude” humanity to scanning the air for the intruder, baring his teeth and growling at prey. She could call him a werewolf, and that might be unfair. But if the MGM wolf suit fits, you know?

***

The power of “Werewolf” lies in its ambivalence; its refusal to send a single message or come to a clear conclusion about its characters, its constant awareness that forgiveness is not the same thing as absolution. It’s easy to talk a big game about letting go, or getting past things; we all like to feel generous. But even generosity has an infinite number of angles. And some of them are sharp enough to draw blood.

This was the year in which Fiona Apple reached a new level in terms of live performance. She’s always been a pleasure to listen to, but this year, she also became a pleasure to watch.She stripped back a layer of insulation somehow, became eerily present and nuanced and expressive, throwing her whole body into the service of her truths; it finally made sense that her list of influences included both Billie Holiday and Martha Graham. (From a quote by the latter, which Apple used to carry during every performance: “Keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open.”) If you really want to know how complicated kindness can be – how even the nicest thing you’ll ever try to say can carry a thousand ugly subtexts – watch the new, un-insulated Fiona Apple travel the rocky emotional range of “Werewolf” in concert.

It’s not histrionic, this performance; not big or loud. It’s just a million tiny, unpredictable, contradictory flickers of emotion, somehow cohering into one full statement. In the first verse, she’s wry, adult, almost laughing at what assholes they both were; in the last, as she admits she’s come around, she wilts into a remorseful little girl. When she reflects on how one thing has led to another, she’s never been sadder to lose someone; when she recommends you avoid her, she snarls avoid, turns it passive-aggressive, as if she’s issuing a warning. The song maintains its balance, not through standing still and centered, but through wobbling back and forth over both sides of the line until it manages to find a footing; it extends a hand in blessing, clenches that hand into a fist, and then slowly uncurls its fingers, over and over again.

And nowhere is this more apparent than when Apple tackles the paradoxical mess of a line that is “you are such a super guy.” She comes at it open, honest, earnest. She gets through one full iteration without losing her sweetness. But the second time around, something shifts. She gets all the way to “super.” But on “until,” her jaw juts out; her nose wrinkles in disgust; her voice gets low and treacherous. For one carefully timed second, after “me,” her face drops away from the mic, and she seethes; she looks like she wants to cuss, spit, shriek. It’s meant to be a compliment, this line. It’s meant to be an affirmation. But for one quick moment, four seconds out of three minutes, affirming this motherfucker is the last thing on her mind. And then she gathers herself up, and owns her part, and offers to support him, all over again. 

That’s the big secret to letting go, it turns out. It’s brave, and generous, and redemptive, precisely because it does nothing to erase the pain. There is no redress, no possible reparation, for having loved the wrong person. Your ex doesn’t come around after the break-up with a little cardboard box containing a couple of t-shirts, your Black Flag CD and, oh, by the way, the months or years of your life that you wasted on the relationship, just in case you wanted those back; you can’t just push a few useful platitudes into the vending machine of life and get back the less worn, lighter heart you used to carry. Even if no-one else has seen the monster, even if no-one believes in werewolves, even if this marauding beast you keep complaining about looks to everyone else in the world like a gosh-darn super guy, you’re still stuck carrying the claw marks. You saw the animal beneath the skin. And in certain moments – maybe just in that one, recurring moment, when you drop away from the conversation, and your eyes go dark, and your face goes ugly – that’s all you’ll ever see. You just gather yourself up, and resolve to see the rest of it, too. To believe in something better than your pain.

It’s easy to think of “Werewolf” as a nicer, calmer, sweeter song than “Regret.” A sob is always easier to love than a shriek. But that kindness resonates precisely because its nasty edges are always visible. Even as Fiona finds her grace, affirms that she’s too sensible to keep this going, that there’s no way to fix this fucked dynamic and she knows that and she’s okay with it, the song taps into another and darker dimension. At the precise moment she says “the end,” the entire space around her erupts into apocalyptic screaming.

***

The connective tissue between this song and “Regret” is transformation, and specifically the power certain dynamics have to transform people into their worst selves. But each song cites a different catalyst for the transformation, and therefore a different reality. In one song, he can’t be around her because she confronts him with the monster he really is. And in the other, she can’t be around him because she makes him act like the monster he’s really not. One tells you about a man, a terrible mean bad man who hurt poor Fiona; the other tells you about a girl who can make an otherwise super guy bite her head right off.  

I don’t know that the album would work without both songs. I don’t know that both songs aren’t true, in their respective moments. But I know that the ability to believe both stories at once, or to at least entertain them as possibilities, is intensely necessary. It’s so easy to say I got hurt, therefore you were an asshole. And it’s so hard to say I was an asshole, therefore I got hurt. But it’s something you have to do, eventually. And the longer you defer it, and the harder you fight it, the worse it is when it lands. This song review may, in fact, be the world’s longest and most elaborate apology to the people to whom I couldn’t say it in time, or clearly enough. But it’s not going to reach them. So I’m going to talk to you:

This song humbled me. It made me profoundly ashamed of every story I ever told that wasn’t this one. The story that’s about recognizing the fact that you create the story: The story that says the werewolf and the shark and the mean monster who shoots hot piss from his mouth is just one take, one way to order the words, around one wounded perspective. That the full moon never sees the best of the werewolf, and the werewolf never looks forward to the full moon. And that this is okay. That there’s some grace available even there.

We can still support each other, is this song’s offer of grace; all we gotta do’s avoid each other, is its solution. When you’ve lost someone, really lost them, to a dynamic this powerfully bad, everything in you wants to rail and scream and blame and say that you are dying, you’re being killed, that you can’t possibly deserve this, that it was all someone else’s fault. You go straight to the “Regret” plane of operations, the one that you will always be ashamed of having gone to, because no-one goes into that sewer and comes out clean. But there is another option. You could consider that there are a million forms meaningfully caring about someone else can take. And maybe absence is just one kind of care.

Because what if that chorus were absolutely true? What if someone really was an objectively super guy, all of the time, unless and until you two interacted? It’s a complicated proposition, it’s quantum-physics friendship: It requires affirming the existence of something that, by definition, cannot exist if you’re there to see it. But what if it really were the case? Would you really want to be the person who made that super guy disappear? Would you want to be the person who made him cruel, or angry, or small? The world has very few super guys. The world needs them. If you can be the force that gives one more super guy to the world, if there’s even a possibility of doing that, you should always oblige.

Bitterness is a poison: It steals your life, it makes you a lesser person, and it keeps you sitting in a mess you will not clean up, that gets bigger with every moment you spend on proclaiming you shouldn’t have to clean it. Once you fall into that, once you demean yourself in that way, you can’t change the fact that you did it, and you can’t undo the damage. But you can end it. And ending it is a favor to everyone involved. In fact, it’s a favor to the planet: It’s the only way to get a complaining, blaming, victim-playing, vindictive person out of the picture, and set your own super self free, into the world.

***

Imagine if someone chose to pull the moon from the sky, just so that the werewolf could stay human. Just a human guy, with his house, and his wife, and his kids, and for some reason I imagine the werewolf is a social studies teacher and wears a little hat to work in the morning; imagine someone chose to believe that this one guy’s right to live his ordinary, happy, hat-wearing human life were so important it was worth losing the moon. Imagine the power that would take, or the compassion. How much value you’d have to place, on that one ordinary human guy, to change your entire world just so that he can live the life he prefers.

And then try to imagine that you have all of that in you. You may have to imagine, for a while. It’s the opposite of what instinct says to do. But if you imagine it hard enough, if you commit deeply enough to pretending your strength and compassion can outweigh your pain, one day you will find out that it’s always been true.

Sometimes, things just don’t work out your way. And sometimes, they shouldn’t. While you’re still down there, on the “Regret” level, getting what you think you want is actually always a terrible idea. Because what you want is to try and avoid pain, or shame, by shoveling it onto someone else. And that’s wrong. And it’s base. And it’s petty, and humiliating, and soul-corroding. You might be exactly right about all the ways somebody failed you. But holding on to all that rightness forever, and letting it make you bitter or vicious, isn’t a form of power. It’s the definition of weakness. It’s going into the sewer, accruing shit, and insisting you will always smell like roses. When you finally climb back out again, the things you did to avoid shame will be the most profound source of shame you have.

Your story is defined to a large degree by how you choose to tell it. So when your telling keeps turning up tales of victimhood and monstrosity, you can insist on that and define yourself around it, or you can name it for what it is: Just one possible take. And you can also tell it differently. You can grant the possibility of nobility, and humanity, and change, to everyone involved. This song tells you what loss looks like, when you do that: It looks like magic. And it looks like grace. And it looks, in the end, exactly like love.

If there’s nothing left to do, no way to make this better, no way to make it stop hurting, you are only being granted an opportunity. Now, in this moment, you can work your most powerful transformation yet. The one that says loving somebody for the rest of your life isn’t equivalent to demanding the two of you stick around in the same pain forever. The one that says you genuinely do want this person to be happy, and you want that more than you want to be there when it happens. Let your loss transform into your greatest service. Let your support be what this song says it can be: A refusal, a power you don’t use. A permanent, quiet, constant gift of surrender.

Sady Doyle

Sady is the founder of Tiger Beatdown and a contributor to In These Times and Rookie Mag, among many others.