In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing.
“Dull Tool” isn’t the first Fiona Apple song that Epic Records nearly kept out of public reach—and given the singer-songwriter’s fraught relationship with the label, it’s unlikely the last. Apple recorded the song for This Is 40 at the request of Judd Apatow, but Epic—part of Sony Music—allegedly didn’t like its artist recording for another conglomerate’s movie. Threats to pull “Dull Tool” from the film’s soundtrack and stage-banter accusations were made. That scuffle was an unfortunate echo of the conflict over 2005’s Extraordinary Machine, and from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like the label flat-out hates any Apple composition that’s treated with the kitchen-sink production of her frequent collaborator Jon Brion. “Dull Tool” harkens back to the sound of the superior, Brion-produced version of Extraordinary Machine, particularly the aptly titled “Better Version Of Me,” which shares a ramshackle, falling-down-the-stairs sense of momentum with Apple’s contribution to Apatow’s unvarnished, tragicomic look at middle age.
The sabers in the battle over “Dull Tool” were eventually sheathed, and it still complements This Is 40’s climactic, cathartic finale. The song is a standalone achievement—especially where Apple’s voice, which so often receives second billing to her lyrical acumen, is concerned—but it’s also difficult to divorce from its cinematic context. (All those frantically strummed strings sure sound like Paul Rudd’s legs pedaling a bike down some dangerously crowded California road.) And even though “You don’t kiss when you kiss / You don’t fuck when you fuck” is more venomous than any of the verbal blows exchanged by Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann throughout This Is 40’s bloated running time, the scene is a perfect marriage of sound and vision. One further characteristic inextricably linking film and song: You can’t seem to buy the thing online without buying the rest of the This Is 40 soundtrack as well. Thankfully, that’s where Extraordinary Machine’s great liberator, the Internet, could come in handy.
Update: Judd Apatow tweeted at us that “none of this is correct,” referring to the rumors about Apple battling her label regarding “Dull Tool.” Our information comes from speculative pieces on MSN and Pitchfork, which cite a concert review from AZCentral.com that that reports she "lashed out at her label for pulling promotional support from her new album in response to her placing a song on a soundtrack.” Nonetheless, we’ll assume Apatow’s assertion that “the label was super cool” is accurate.