By Paul Robicheau
Not only is Fetch the Bolt Cutters the most stunning of Apple’s five albums, it’s the most impressive pop record of this young pandemic year, its bottled turmoil speaking to our own pent-up nerves.
Fiona Apple’s first album in eight years reflects what one might imagine from the tormented singer/songwriter/pianist who spent most of that time holed up in her Venice Beach house. Except that Apple shatters all expectations with Fetch the Bolt Cutters — in a very real way. Keenly navigating an emotional maelstrom, she conflates relationships, resentments, and anxieties in songs both spontaneous and compulsive, her multitracked voice finding its melodic groove within a madly sown symphony of homemade percussion.
“I’ve been in here too long,” Apple sings in the title track, named after Gillian Anderson’s call to free a tortured girl in a British crime drama. Yet self-imposed quarantine only helped the singer attain her artistic clarity. Not only is Fetch the Bolt Cutters the most stunning of Apple’s five albums, it’s the most impressive pop record of this young pandemic year, its bottled turmoil speaking to our own pent-up nerves. And it should resonate just as deeply for many years to come.
Working with a band of drummer Amy Aileen Wood, guitarist David Garza, and longtime bassist Sebastian Steinberg (plus occasional backup vocals from gal pals including her sister, her housemate, and actress Cara Delevingne), Apple turned her home sanctuary into a primary place to record. “Every print I left upon the track has led me here,” Apple sings in lead track “I Want You to Love Me,” gorgeously wound with piano, building with soulful resolve and closing with a squeaky, valve-like warble more akin to Meredith Monk or Yoko Ono. A dizzying piano pattern likewise propels the following “Shameika,” about a middle-school girl who told Apple she “had potential.” Then her piano kind of disappears. In fact, apart from Steinberg’s rich upright bass in “Ladies” (a nonjudgmental overture to an ex’s future lovers), traditional rock instruments largely give way to music’s first modes of expression: voice and percussion, the latter apparently ranging from oil cans and seedpods to a box containing the bones of one of her beloved dogs.
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” floats a bohemian conversation inside Apple’s head with its echo chamber of overlapping vocals. “I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill, shoes that were not made for running up that hill,” Apple sings in a nod to idol Kate Bush. “And I need to run up that hill” (as the song fades, dogs can be heard barking in the house). Apple also sums up depression over the thumping beat of “Heavy Balloon,” noting, “People like us, we play with a heavy balloon, we keep it up to keep the devil at bay, but it always falls way too soon.”
The singer nonetheless shows backbone and anger. “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up,” she sings in memory of a dinner she didn’t want to attend. And the ascension of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite allegations of sexual assault provides grist for two other songs. “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure,” Apple — herself a victim of sexual assault at age 12 — fumes in “Relay,” which shifts to a sing-songy march for the chorus: “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” And “For Her” adds an even more scathing tour-de-force. Harmony rounds — which recall sister trio the Roches — break into a gospel rave-up around the line “Like you know you should know, but you don’t know what you did.” And with a twist on a standard made famous from the musical Singin’ in the Rain, Apple buries the blade with “Good mornin,’ good mornin,’ you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in,” then a spectral coda of the refrain “You were so high.”
Yet, despite struggles relived or explored, Apple shares a newfound sense of wit and affirmation. In “Rack of His,” she pokes fun at a man’s cherished collection of guitars, their necks “lined up like eager fillies.” And in “Cosmonauts,” Apple lightly ponders “You and I will be like a couple of cosmonauts, except with way more gravity than when we started off,” before she resolves the tune with lullaby-like humming. And in the closing track “On I Go,” another march of ghostly chanting, Apple drops a double-curse at making a slip that listeners wouldn’t otherwise catch in the percussive crosscurrent. But it was left in the final mix, another earthy blip lost in the awesome sweep of Apple’s perfectly imperfect storm.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications.