Album Review: Fiona Apple - 'Fetch The Bolt Cutters'

Fiona Apple's latest release and fifth solo album - and its reviews - have already caused quite the stir in the world of music journalism; here, Owen explains why it is nothing short of masterful.

Fiona Apple’s new record and her first in 7 years, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, is a remarkable, unyielding masterpiece. The kind of imperfect, thrilling body of work that seems to hollow the artist out then makes shapes of unspeakable beauty from their entrails. It’s the follow-up to 2012’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do - itself an auteur masterpiece that elevated her from a very talented pop songstress to one of the most singular and uncompromising voices in Art Pop.

Image courtesy of Sachy Mital.

This is Apple carrying the flame of creative freedom, intellectual liberation, and boundary pushing empathy and catharsis that great women – from Kate Bush to Laurie Anderson to Bjork – have kept alive across the genre’s history, while simultaneously presenting a methodology of expression and musical discovery so personal and wholly unique that any comparisons to her peers or forebearers would be entirely shallow. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is the culmination of the most intriguing chapter in one of the most electrifyingly capricious artistic trajectories of the 2000s.

Describing the sound of this album is an uphill battle; while it contains many disparate elements which may seem familiar, even human, when amputated and laid out limp on the cold steel, it’s the synthesis of these tiny ticking parts that makes the woman. The album is noticeably starker and more unrelenting then anything else Apple has released so far – an impressive feat considering the harrowing exorcism that was The Idler Wheel. However, while that album’s wit, bile and anguish were foregrounded, it was a more tender record that explored Apple’s romantic attachments, with forays into her own mental wellbeing and the atrocities committed by men that contributed to shaping her, all backed by her typically ornate, jazzy piano.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters is something entirely primal and unrecognisable in its completeness, containing within its multitudes the sinewy, deep, nerve-ending tenderness of The Idler Wheel while being at turns distressingly direct. It is confrontational enough to flay the listener to their spiritual core, and entirely esoteric and strangely beautiful in both style and content in a way only original art can be.

'It is confrontational enough to flay the listener to their spiritual core, and entirely esoteric and strangely beautiful in both style and content in a way only original art can be'.

Really, the only song from The Idler Wheel that could be considered indicative of the direction of this album would be relative outlier Hot Knife. Its exploration of a new, darker, and more percussive sound for Apple ripples out across this album as she drives her song-writing and instrumental pallet to new levels of minimalism and exploration. However, while Hot Knife is bombastic and cleanly produced, this new material is often unsettling and contains a sonic freedom and DIY ethos most modern punk bands would kill for.

Opener I Want You To Love Me begins with a gorgeous flourishing piano passage reminiscent of Apple’s prior work. However, there’s already something strangely hypnotic and obscured about its cycling, arpeggiated patter of notes and strong onbeat bass that give it a physicality and feeling of 3D space reminiscent slightly of the musical landscapes of Reich, but entirely original for Apple’s own work and pop music more widely.

'[The record is] the kind of imperfect, thrilling body of work that seems to hollow the artist out then makes shapes of unspeakable beauty from their entrails'.

Apple gently pines poetic lyrics at an unnamed lover before she proudly frames a declaration of the innate need we all have to be loved by someone we consider special as a stunningly simple chorus. Recontextualising the simple refrain each time, it comes back around as the associative lyrical style broadens its themes into identity and what it means to be human, allowing her to mine endless meaning from a fistful of words. The ratcheting up of the tension and drama seems unsustainable as the stabbing bass rises in volume like a quickening pulse, and Apple’s voice rises ever-so-slowly into a controlled howl only her smokey contralto could manage to hold. Her voice bears the psychical scars taken to produce such honest and authentic expression on each note and syllable; it holds unknowable depth and gravity tempered by the humanity of its flaws; and it drags the weight of the deep physical and emotional place it seems to be drawn from kicking and screaming across the bloody floor.

The intensity finally peaks in the line, ‘But I know a sound is still a sound around no one’: the cuttingly universal thesis for the song and entire album as a whole. Apple’s experiences and perspective are real and her own whether you (or anyone else) accept them or not. Then, just as it seems the song has exhausted all routes of heightening its drama and sonic build, it breaks down and simultaneously opens up as the piano and cellos play rhythmic call and response, elevating both from instruments with specific roles to primordial elements; elements Apple then uses to create the kind of stormy landscape that alone could contain her sung/rapped/caterwauled outpouring of emotion that follows.

This impossible escalation is achieved on every song on the album and even on its most low-key and gentle cuts, some kind of development and feeling of progression is achieved, leaving these tracks feeling less like songs and more like cathartic deep conversations with a close friend, personal and intense in a wholly unique way each time.

Apple spends much of her time here exploring her relationships with other women throughout her life, both personal and parasocial. Early standout Shameika takes its name from a ‘tough’ girl Apple had a formative encounter with in middle school, where her simple message ‘you have potential’ is transformed in the chorus into both a badge of honour and a testament to the powerful effect praise, encouragement and community can have on breaking women free of the oppressive roles forced upon them by society. Its winding piano lines creep like serpents but each note hits with the percussive force of a mallet to the jaw, while its unconventional clattering beat rollicks behind it. These elements come together to capture the urgency and disorientation people only experience in their youth as they attempt to find themselves, as well as the youthful charm and innocent appreciation of beauty we all lose further down the line.

Elsewhere, on the stark and tensely uncomfortable For Her, Apple leads a largely acapella choir of all female voices over nothing but a crisply recorded, groovy but distinctly unhinged drum line. Apple uses this already striking and unnerving basis to craft a harmonically and structurally complex song about the abuses women suffer at the hands of powerful men, as well as the truth and personal liberty they are often denied when they come forward with their stories. Springing from sessions directly after the nomination hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the result drips with the scalding rage, indignity and absolute repugnance towards these men a song channelling this topic requires.

It’s a stunning, difficult to swallow masterwork that culminates with understated horror, coming instantly and distressingly into direct focus with the line ‘You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in’ before quickly shifting back out to soft-focus in a sea of angelic choir vocals that could fill even the grandest cathedral. The frightening ambiguity and lightly sour harmonies of ending coda ‘you were so high’ maintains the sort of frightening and confrontational approach that is a prerequisite for a song topic as harrowing as this into the track’s final moments.

'These elements come together to capture the urgency and disorientation people only experience in their youth as they attempt to find themselves'.

This is not to say the tirades against repugnant and pathetic manbabies Apple has dated, witnessed others bear the burdens of, and constructed for the purposes of songs have disappeared. Nor have the personal explorations of mental health and Apple’s own mind state. These songs have simply become more challenging and complex in their framings, in turn lending them a broadness and relatability to a number of contexts.

Heavy Balloon pairs an irresistible groove, deep and rich as extravagant Swiss chocolate, with a witty depression metaphor as Apple imagines herself and other’s dealing with the condition as having to continuously bounce a heavy balloon ‘to keep the devil at bay’. The result is both charmingly innocent and striking in its undercurrents of genuine sadness. A limber bassline and gorgeously minimal guitar embellishment build out the mix into a luxurious art-funk beast. The liberating, euphorically defiant chorus seems to blow all the melancholy and uncertainty out of the mix as she declares that she’ll ‘spread like strawberries’ and ‘climb like peas and beans’. The dazzling, life affirming message here is presented with stark and uncompromising honesty, and the result might be the most swagger a song dealing directly with depression’s ever had.

Image courtesy of Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

The ‘romantic’ Fiona Apple makes a graceful and hilarious return on the (comparatively) conventionally lovely Cosmonauts – a committed love song from an artist who’s never let a relationship or partner define their songs or overshadow their autonomy and identity. It of course doubles as a heavily tongue-in-cheek meditation on the nature of monogamy and whether or not it’s even plausible. It’s probably the smoothest and jazziest thing here; with its driving beat, prominent sassy double bass and instantly sticky vocal melody, it could probably have fit quite comfortably on The Idler Wheel. Its showstopping chorus – which posits permanent monogamy as something in between a safety net and a safe bet – has been repeating in my head 24/7 since first listen, and honestly still gets funnier each time. Each line drips with sarcasm and hits with punchy comic timing as Apple attempts to comprehend the existential horror of being trapped with one person for eternity, literally representing the resultant interpersonal cabin-fever as two people are lost adrift in a space pod. Some supremely pretty vibraphone work and alien harmonies imbue a celestial appeal to the instrumental.

To call an album perfect as a critic is in many ways a great risk to both the critic and the artist themselves; the snarling throng of contrarians already baying at this album due to it receiving Pitchfork’s perfect 10 can attest to that. The only thing baffling about this reaction is that these people still view Pitchfork as a socially or critically relevant force in 2020. No music could ever be so truly universal and contain such multitudes within itself as to fulfill the criteria of perfection for every listener, and resultantly you leave yourself open to the indignant outcries of those whose standards differ from your own. Perfection lies in the eye of the beholder (true universal perfection being a paradoxical, philosophical impossibility) and this album rests easy in mine. Its sonic design and melodic construction are reminiscent of little else except purity of ethos, as the constant complex rhythmic drive, variation and interplay of these tracks drives the drama in many of them forward, and often shares equal spotlight with their melodic and chordal counterparts (a feat rarely seen in rock and pop music).

'No music could ever be so truly universal and contain such multitudes within itself as to fulfill the criteria of perfection for every listener'.

The use of found sounds and percussion that wouldn’t be thought of as traditionally musical to form these strange, stylistically antithetical rhythms result in some of the strangest, yet most stirring music produced in living memory. Some Tom Waits material may be used as a comparison at a push, but really that gives neither artist their deserved credit. A work of unparalleled songwriting craft, emotional sincerity and broad address of its own and the wider social and political context it finds itself in, this is everything a Fiona Apple record in 2020 should and deserves to be – perhaps even more boldly, everything an album in 2020 should be.

That’s why I believe this album holds a virtue more vital and persuasive then perfection: it is important. It’s entirely unique instrumental character and style of composition make it truly difficult to assign any reference points to, forcing each listener to engage with it in on its own terms, whether they accept those terms or not, and this will hopefully create broad stylistic ripples across wider music. Ultimately, its idiosyncrasies, heart, and unignorable social relevancy in the wake of the Me-Too era and its ongoing effects make this record impossible to ignore in our current context. Fetch The Bolt Cutters is far more than an perfect record; it’s an important record, and to my mind that gives it so much more value.