Album Review: Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters
There is a small stable of artists who, over the course of their careers, have done something so extraordinary—given so much of themselves, while we, as the audience, take more (and at times, ask more) of them than they can ever actually give in return—that, eventually, there is a point when these artists don’t owe us a thing.
Lauryn Hill is, perhaps, the first name that comes to mind—already a marquee name thanks to her time with The Fugees, Hill, in well over 20 years, has only released one studio album. But The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill is so iconic and groundbreaking that, even with her emotionally fragile, unnerving MTV Unplugged performance, taped in 2001 and released as a double album in 2002, and even with her time served for tax evasion, and even with her legendary erratic live performances—she owes us nothing. Not sophomore album; not live shows that start on time; not a functioning Fugees reunion.
The same can be said for D’Angelo, following the release of his second album, Voodoo—now 20 years old, and the tumultuous turn mainstream fame took on him, his inward turn into substance abuse, and his decade plus of total silence before resurfacing in 2012 with a handful of live dates. D’Angelo didn’t owe us a third album, but in the wake of the escalating racial tensions in 2014, he more or less rushed the completion and release of Black Messiah as a means to make a statement. Does D’Angelo owe us another album?
No. Not at all.
Given the wild trajectory her career has had since her auspicious debut in 1996, Fiona Apple, is another one of those artists. Even after the release of her bombastic (yet, in retrospect, still accessible as a whole) album, The Idler Wheel…, in 2012, she had, unbeknownst to herself, I think, built up enough mystique (and is responsible for one of the most iconic bangers to come out of the late 1990s) that Apple, as a singer and songwriter, doesn’t owe us a fucking thing.
She didn’t have to make a new album.
But she did—Apple has returned from yet another lengthy period of silence in between records (eight years) with her fifth effort—Fetch The Bolt Cutters, the title is a marginally obscure reference to a line spoken by Gillian Anderson in the gritty crime procedural “The Fall.”
She didn’t have to make a new album, but she did, and she didn’t have to release it right now.
But she did—and this is an example of Apple’s benevolence; the compassion and the empathy that reside somewhere inside of her, that often comes pouring out unexpectedly.
Fiona Apple, now in her early 40s, and it should come as no surprise at all—she is not on any form of social media, but her roommate (yes, she has a roommate) is active on Twitter and Instagram, and last month, once information about the album started trickling out thanks to a lengthy New Yorker profile, a short video of Apple asking if she should release the album ‘now’ surfaced—she contended that Sony Music (her longtime label) wanted her to wait until October (presumably when social distancing has ended and inessential businesses can reopen.)
In an in-depth interview on Vulture with Apple, published the day of Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ release, Apple said she released the album now, rather than in the fall, for this reason—
There are people who are alone at home, or people who are not alone, who are at home with abusive partners or with people they just can’t stand. Maybe they need to put on some headphones as an excuse to get away from those people, and may’ve the music can help them get out their feelings inside that they want to scream at these people. So it just seemed very logical to me to put it out early.
Did Fiona Apple return, after almost a decade, to save us all, during this unprecedented time?
She didn’t have to. But she did.
In a brief exchange with a friend, w/r/t Fetch The Bolt Cutters, on Friday, April 17th—the day of its release—this was, as the time, the best way I could describe it to her: ‘unapologetically visceral.’
The words ‘raw,’ ‘powerful,’ or even ‘cathartic’ do not begin to do this album, and more importantly, the way Apple carries this album, justice. It is raucous and cacophonic in ways that I am uncertain that words can even accurately describe. 22 years ago, at the MTV Video Music Awards, Apple accepted a trophy for the ‘Best New Artist’ category, and she used her time at the podium to declare that ‘this world is bullshit.’ This world is still bullshit, Apple ran out of fucks to give a long, long time ago, and she’s made a fearless work of art that somehow manages to funnel love, anger, regret, depression, feminism, and surprisingly, a biting sense of humor, into a wildly organic collection 13 songs that are unlike anything I have heard before.
The praise (and yes, it is worthy of all of the high praise it has received right out of the gate) comes from three places: Apple, herself, as a reclusive artist; the album’s unflinching lyrical content, which is absolutely unrelenting in what it tackles; and perhaps most important of all, the album’s arranging and production because HOLY FUCKING SHIT. In the New Yorker profile, Apple discusses the ‘percussive’ nature of Fetch The Bolt Cutters and she wasn’t kidding. If, at one time, the piano was Apple’s primary instrument, now, over two decades later, she’s no longer the sad, thin girl lurching over the keys—she’s a true, torrential force to be reckoned with, as is her band, all of whom are credited with producing the record, and the heavy, almost primal nature that the album has sonically is something that is, at times, simply almost too much to handle.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the kind of album that needs to be played from beginning to end, uninterrupted, and is almost impossible to parse out into ‘singles.’ Apple is no longer a ‘singles’ kind of artist. Yes, there are songs that are slightly less confrontational here that could fit in nicely on a public radio station’s playlist, but the point of the record is to immerse yourself in it, and figuring out how to unpack everything Apple has stored within. With a physical release pending for ‘the summer,’ right now, Fetch The Bolt Cutters unfortunately lives on your hard drive, or on the cloud, interrupted every few songs by advertisements. Even with this less than ideal way to experience it, it is an album that demands to be listened to loudly—loud to the point it becomes dizzying, and with a pair of headphones firmly planted in your ears—because the razor sharp attention to detail within the album’s production is something to behold.
The mythology surrounding Fiona Apple is a fascinating one—a mythology based in long periods of self-exile and silence; a mythology based on evolution and maturation, and slowly growing into one’s self; a mythology partially based in not so much ‘secrecy,’ but in things left unsaid, only to be revealed much later on—her ‘secret’ marriage in hear early 20s being one of those things.
Apple’s mythology wasn’t always looked so fondly upon though, and in retrospect, she was treated incredibly unfairly a number of times throughout myriad stages of her career—even from the beginning, receiving criticism for the racy (at the time) video for “Criminal,” or the unfavorable Spin cover story about her, which prompted the difficult to comprehend title to her second album, 1999’s When The Pawn…1, or when her third album was recorded and temporarily shelved2 after it was recorded, only to be slowly leaked onto the internet, then re-recorded and remixed with a different production staff.
If Fetch The Bolt Cutters shows an older, wiser, slightly more unhinged Apple who has no fucks left to give, it’s not that she ran out recently; she more than likely never gave a fuck for a majority of her career. It’s just that now, through her mythology and the mystique surrounding her, and through making subjectively ‘difficult’ albums—her attitude, and the artistic confidence she exudes, is just more apparent.
Brazen in its arranging, production, and lyrics, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, as an album, finds Apple reflecting on who she was, who she is now, and who we, perhaps erroneously, thought she had been—it also finds her not only reflecting on her past (both as an artist, but even further back than that) but looking ahead as far as one can look these days, into the future, with a strong feminist message, though delivered in slightly cautious way.
Apple’s sense of humor, whether intentional or not, runs throughout a bulk of Fetch The Bolt Cutters. It seems wild to describe an album by a once sullen artist as being ‘fun,’ because it is still a therapeutic record that gets into the difficulties of relationships, of bad relationships, and of trauma (her own as well as of others)—but rather than being as melancholic as her earliest material was, Apple now has a freewheeling aesthetic that allows her to channel these dark themes in surprisingly innovative ways—both within the album’s idiosyncratic instrumentation, as well as her stark, often poetic lyrics.
So even within those moments where it becomes incredibly intense, yes, it is a ‘fun’ record; a rollicking, kaleidoscopic experience that will leave you smiling and laughing, but also reflecting on yourself as it all unfolds.
Whether an intentional wink to the listener or not, Pass The Bolt Cutters opens with the spiraling “I Want You to Love Me”; a song that begins with the lyric, “I waited many years—every print I left upon the track has lead me here.” And there are a number of moments like that—not so much throwaway lines, or asides Apple is taking, but the album is very, very self-aware in this sense, as well as in the sense of Apple attempting to, as she puts it in a song-by-song breakdown on Vulture, that she is trying to have more fun with her voice.
You can hear that almost right away in the refrain of “I Want You to Love Me,” where she holds a note for much, much longer than you’d expect without taking a breath, or a pause, stretching the “you” in the song’s title out for, like, eight seconds, until her voice begins to crack and she in hales into the “love me.” It’s also on this song, which begins uncharacteristically with a chintzy sounding drum machine and keyboard flicker before Apple’s rolling piano melodies come in—it’s on this song, when things become surprisingly bombastic, and you can hear her using her voice as an instrument. She claimed she didn’t want to just sing something that sounded pretty anymore, and when the song begins to explode, and she more or less barks out, “BLAST THE MUSIC! BANG IT, BITE IT, BRUISE IT!,” you can almost hear her throat shredding in her delivery.
Apple continues the self-aware, inward reflection on the album’s titular track—a shuffle that finds her experimenting with overlapping her vocals, and delivering certain portions of the lyrics in a strange, soothing kind of talk/singing that she puts a slight accent on. It sounds, maybe, like it isn’t going work, or that it’s going to be too weird—but, like all the esoteric things she pulls out on Fetch The Bolt Cutters, it works, as she tosses out pensive lines like, “I grew up in shoes they told me that I could fill. Shoes that were not made for running up that hill—and I need to to run up that hill. I need to run up that hill; I will, I will…” Obvious Kate Bush reference aside, here, as well as on the subsequent track, “Under The Table,” Apple makes use of poignant imagery to running and climbing up heights, and on “Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” she also takes a shot at her attempts to run away from the spotlight of fame: “I thought being blacklisted would be grist for the mill—until I realized I’m still here.”
While there are a number of lyrical themes that run throughout the record, and even with something as musical diverse as Fetch The Bolt Cutters is, there are two recurring elements that are noticeable almost right away—the first is that a number of the songs end in total chaos, or an explosive cacophony. This happens with the way Apple allows “I Want You to Love Me” to go off the rails as it is concluding, with her voice becoming something dissonant, shrieking out unsettling vocal sounds against piano key banging; it happens again in the titular track—even as reserved and tense as the song is, it ends with the chaos of her dogs3, as well as the dogs of guest vocalist Cara Delevinge, barking wildly from a different room after the song had been recorded.
The other musical element that is very apparent is Apple’s use of repetition—turning phrases into hypnotic chants or mantras. She does it a little with the way the line “Fetch the bolt cutters” is whispered, but it continues more and more throughout, like on the standout “Under The Table,” or on “Relay.”
Structurally, whether intentional or not, Fetch The Bolt Cutters is most thematically cohesive in its first and second parts. The first, lyrically speaking, is connected with the through line of Apple looking inward at herself and her past—going all the way back to junior high confrontations on the album’s frenetic second track, “Shameika.”4 But it’s after the whimsical, bursting “Rack of His” that the album takes a turn, and Apple begins exploring feminism, and the idea that women can be friends, even if the only thing in common is a man.
The theme is most clear because the songs, “Newspaper,” and “Ladies,” are sequenced back to back—a smart choice in getting the point across, but also a fantastic bit of musical juxtaposition. “Newspaper” is one of the album’s most brutally cathartic moments—built around tribal, visceral percussion and Apple’s powerful caterwauling; in turn, “Ladies” is, without a doubt, the most fun moment on Fetch The Bolt Cutters—swaying and slow burning, it’s like nothing else on the record, or like nothing else Apple has done to this date.
“Newspaper,” only titled that because Apple claims she was saving a Garage Band file and saw a newspaper near her computer, is about two very specific people (Apple only dabbles in hot goss so much as to say that a song is about one or two ‘people’ in general, and rarely, if ever, names names), the song details Apple’s empathy for a woman being hurt by a man who had once hurt her, and the distance that is assumed to be between her and this other woman: “I wonder what lies he’s been telling you about me, to make sure that we’ll never be friends,” she growls, early on in the song. “It’s a shame because you and I didn’t get a witness—we’re the only ones who know. We were cursed the moment that the kissed us…”
If Apple concedes that she was trying to have fun with her voice on Fetch The Bolt Cutters, you can hear her finding that joy on “Ladies,” specifically in the way she plays with the emphasis and rhythm with which she says the song’s title, 16 times, at the top of the track, the further along she gets, the sillier the whole thing becomes, before the reserved slink of the band come tumbling in. Here, Apple also works on the control of her voice, wildly tearing and careening through her unrelentingly breathless phrasing before coming to a screeching halt and taking things in a completely different direction: “Take it easy;’ when he leaves me, please be my guest to whatever I might have left in his kitchen cupboards, in the back of his bathroom cabinets and oh yes, oh yes, oh yes there’s a dress in the closet—don’t get rid off it, you’d look good in it! I didn’t fit in it—it was never mine. It belong to the ex-wife of another ex of mine, she left it behind with a note, one line, that said ‘I don’t know if I’m coming across but I’m really trying.’ She was very kind.”
That halt comes in the next line, when Apple abruptly says “Fruit bat,” which she compares to herself as being ‘cuter than a button.’
As fun as “Ladies”5 is, it ends on a somewhat ominous note—perhaps its in the way Apple lets her vocal range drop down to something low and gravely, repeating the phrase: “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.”
The idea of strawberries, peas, and beans has never sounded so threatening as it does when it is in the hands of Fiona Apple.
As Fetch The Bolt Cutters enters well into its second half, there is another tonal shift, and there is a pair of songs that are possibly the most direct lyrically, and in one case, probably the most accessible musically—not exactly an album spilling over with ‘singles,’6 but the face of radio has changed in the 20+ years since Tidal was released, and an artist like Apple will find a home on public radio affiliates as opposed to whatever ‘alternative’ stations are left in the marketplace.
“Heavy Balloon,” another groove-ladened track on the album’s latter half, shuffles along with huge, bombastic outbursts. A song written about depression—both Apple’s own mental health struggles, as well as about the depression of somebody else,” she uses the imagery of a ‘heavy balloon’ to describe what it’s like living with such a burden. But that burden is contrasted with the imagery she took from a gardening book for children: “I spread like strawberries; I climb like peas and beans—I’ve been sucking it in so long that I’m busting at the seams.”
“Cosmonauts” is, inherently, the song on Fetch The Bolt Cutters that sounds the most like a ‘Fiona Apple song,’ meaning it has the most in common with her older material—specifically the whimsical qualities her earliest work with producer and arranger Jon Brion had. The two have not really worked together since the original mix of Extraordinary Machine, but Brion, who outside of his iconic production sounds, has built a career the last 15 years as a film composer, asked Apple to contribute a song for the Judd Apatow vehicle This is 40. An early version of “Cosmonauts” was submitted but not used; Apple re-recorded it with, presumably much different instrumentation (especially in the song’s verses) and additional vocals. It is, at its core, a love song, though Apple concedes that she doesn’t feel very romantic these days, and struggles to wrap her brain around the idea of long term commitment and monogamy—though that’s what the song is about.
Within its final three songs, Fetch The Bolt Cutters becomes its most wild and unhinged—which is a fitting way to end a record that has been, since it began, propelled forward through a constant sense of tension and release. “For Her” is, by far, the album’s most fascinating moment—Apple explains she wrote it for someone else, who at one time, was an intern for a film production company, and the song serves as a means for this story to be told, because the person it directly involves cannot tell it herself. It’s dark—the line “You raped me in same bed your daughter was born in” does exactly what it should, which is to produce a terribly unsettled feeling in the listener, and musically, it only features percussion, along with a cavalcade of vocals layered on top of Apple’s own.
“For Her,” also is where Apple flexes slightly with her witticism within the lyrics—since the song is about people within the film industry7, the line, without referencing the liner notes, sounds like “It’s award season,” but it’s actually and importantly “a ward’s season…the season of the ward,” due to the bizarre dynamic between the woman the song is about, and the man whom she worked for (and who assaulted her.) He, apparently, looked at her as ‘a ward,’ of his, that he needed to care for.
Teetering into some playfulness, or at least borderline whimsy, “Drumset,” the second to last track on the record, is a breakup song—but the way it’s presented is not as heavy handed as one may thing. Written partially after Apple and former partner Jonathan Ames8 had split up a second time, it’s also more about everybody leaving her life, not just someone she was romantically involved with. In the breakdown of the songs on Vulture9, Apple explains she had also had a fight with her band, and they had taken some of their instruments out of her home studio; she took it to mean they weren’t coming back (they did) but in the moments after they left, she recorded the opening lines to the song on her phone.
And it’s here, in Fetch The Bolt Cutters, that the album doesn’t so much lose momentum, but as it winds itself down, it finds itself with songs that are slightly less successful in their execution than the others that came before it. The album’s closing track, “On I Go,” serves as an epilogue of sorts—it is perhaps the most chant/repetition heavy, as well as the most percussive of the set, based around what Apple calls her version of the ‘Vipassana chant’ she sung all night in a holding cell after she was arrested for possession of hashish in 2012. The change in tone with this piece, compared to the other songs here, is noticeable—it seems more of a sketch or rough idea than anything else, but it does bring the album to a breathless conclusion.
The mythology surrounding Fiona Apple is a fascinating one—it’s one she deserves, but it’s also probably not something she really wants. But, over the course of 22 years, or so, every time she returns, she’s a different artist; and since her 2012 effort, The Idler Wheel…, when she has returned, she has come back more critically revered.
Extraordinary Machine was not panned by critics per se, but it did take some flack from Spin and Pitchfork10, saying it lacked the life that the unofficial, Jon Brion-helmed version of the record had. And the label more or less holding the album hostage painted a picture of Apple as a difficult, reclusive artist that was not in total creative control of her work.
Somewhere between the release of Extraordinary Machine, and The Idler Wheel…, the opinion of Apple shifted, and she when she returned with something bombastic and raw, she was heralded—Spin giving it an 8 out of 10, and Pitchfork giving it a 9 out of 10. She was still reclusive, but she had successfully made a difficult album and released it via a major label. She was making the kind of music she wanted to make, on her own terms, which is, again, what she’s doing now—an even more difficult album, released early, on a major label, that is exponentially more bombastic and raw. Is the praise it’s getting because the album is so thought provoking, challenging, and incredible? Or is it because of her ever shifting, built-in mythology?
Or is it both? Can it be both?
The mythology surrounding Fiona Apple is a fascinating one—and as the ever reclusive artist with no fucks left to give, she didn’t have to make a new album. But she did. She didn’t have to release it now. But she did. She may be eccentric, or unpredictable at times, but she is also compassionate, empathetic, and benevolent11.
Fiona Apple didn’t have to make a new album, but she did, because she as an artist, still has a lot to say, and Fetch The Bolt Cutters, unsurprisingly, speaks volumes, and in a sense, is a reflection of the times.
Apple casts a long stare on her former partners, her career, and herself, as well as a hard look at others as well, but she does so with an astounding balance that finds the space between the volatile and the humorous. It’s a trick that not everybody could pull it off, but she does it almost flawlessly. Is it worthy of the praise it received the day it was released—yes, absolutely. Is Apple’s back catalog worth digging back into if you, perhaps erroneously, slept on her previous efforts—yes, without a doubt.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters is an enormous step forward—for experimental songwriting, because even as inaccessible as these songs may appear on the surface, they are still written in such a way that melodies and other infectious parts lodge themselves in your head long after you’ve finished listening; and for Apple herself, who has already given so much, and continues to give, even though she owes us nothing. This album is a gift—a fascinating and beautiful one—that continues to open itself up with each listen; it’s an album that, yes, is intensely personal for Apple as she holds a mirror up to herself, but it’s also a chance to find bits of yourself in her reflection.
1- The full title reads like this: When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won't Matter, Cuz You'll Know That You're Right.
2- The whole thing with Extraordinary Machine being recorded, shelved, and re-recorded is a little difficult to follow. Apparently Apple was thinking about ‘retiring’ from performing following When The Pawn, but Jon Brion convinced her to start working on another record. Apple recorded with Brion in 2002 and 2003, but it was shelved by Epic once it was submitted, allegedly due to the fact that it lacked any clear ‘singles.’ Material from the shelved version began leaking, and a ‘Free Fiona’ campaign was launched by her fans. Apple, to her credit, didn’t really seemed all that bothered by the fact that the album had been delayed.
3- Just a fun, cute fact, that all the dogs involved in barking on the album are credited in the liner notes with ‘background barks.’
4- The lyric, “Shameika said I had potential” is an instant classic, and began making the rounds on Twitter almost immediately after the record’s release.
5- Just a quick aside that saying the word, “Ladies,” like 16 times in a row, becomes very hypnotic, and very silly, and you really can’t help but laugh at yourself as you sat it along with her.
6- Since no ‘advance’ singles were released from the album, Pitchfork really seemed to be pushing for ‘Cosmonauts” to be a single, or at least a popular track from the record, giving it ‘Best New Track’ the same day the album came out.
7- Apple’s cocaine fueled, volatile relationship with writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson in the late 1990s and very early 2000s is well documented.
8- Ames is an eccentric writer from New York, who rose to prominence in the late 1990s and early to mid 2000s with his very sexually charged column for an arts/alternative publication, as well as novels The Extra Man and Wake Up, Sir!. His lyrics are referenced in very early National songs, and he is maybe best known now for writing the novella that inspired the HBO series “Bored to Death,” as well as the film You Were Never Really Here.
9- The piece on Vulture is called ‘The Story Behind Every Track,’ but I still feel like it doesn’t breakdown the songs and their histories as much as could be done. Sometimes Apple’s explanation of each piece is a little, perhaps intentionally, ambiguous.
10- Pitchfork runs both ways: it champions artists early on then turns its back, or, it pans an artist early on, then suddenly comes around on them—in this case, the site went from giving Extraordinary Machine a 6.2 (they also review the unreleased version within the same review giving it a slightly higher rating) to giving Fetch The Bolt Cutters a 10—the first time a new release has earned a perfect score in a decade.
11- Example: a few days after Fetch The Bolt Cutters was released, Apple’s roommate posted a video of her saying she received an email from a company wanting to use one of her songs in a commercial. Originally, she said no; and in the video, she details how she shouldn’t have turned down the offer and shouldn’t be ‘greedy’ with her music, especially now. So she emailed back again and said she’d do it, and that she is going to take the money and just ‘give it all away.’