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SEPTEMBER 17, 2020

Fiona Apple has always been a daring artist, straying far from any mainstream label to create an unparalleled personal image. Since her debut album, Tidal (1996), she has been unapologetic—a consistent theme in every album that’s followed. It was difficult to conceive the possibility of even greater honesty in her music, but then came her latest release and her first album in eight years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. This is Fiona Apple, unstrung, at her most vulnerable and at her strongest.


Fetch the Bolt Cutters is being hailed as a perfect quarantine album, as Apple fittingly sings about being on the cusp of a breakthrough. But to label the album as merely something to pass time in lockdown would be superficial and antithetical to the intricate, multifaceted album.


Even if you are attuned to Apple’s unconventional sound, you may be inclined to think that the opening title, “I Want You to Love Me,” may be about her yearning for an unrequited love. In fact, the song starts with melodic piano and Apple’s soft vocals: “I’ve waited many years / Every print I left upon the track, has led me here.”


But make no mistake, this song, and the album as a whole, is not nearly as much about heartbreak as much as it is Apple’s invitation into her own self-discovery. Although Apple’s signature harrowing vocals are recognizable and reminiscent of her earlier songs like “Criminal” and “Sleep to Dream,” the album is anything but an easy listen. If you are someone who expects catchy melodies and smooth guitar, steer clear, because this album is not catered for mass appeal, and its raw, heavy content is not for the faint-hearted. 


About two minutes into the first song, the rhythm and consistency built up by rich piano sounds is overlapped by heavy percussion and Apple’s assertive, almost speaking, voice. “And I know, that you know that you got / The potential to pick me up,” she sings, her voice breaking in some parts before semi-shouting, “And I want you to use it / Blast the music / Bang it, bite it, bruise it.” This first song is emblematic of the album, which switches noticeably yet seamlessly between Apple’s vulnerability and anger.


In another song, “Shameika,” Apple returns to memories from middle school in which a girl named Shameika revealed to a young and bullied Apple her own strength and asserted that she “had potential.” This song, which also utilizes piano and percussion, takes heavy cues from improvisation and rhythmic fluctuations commonly found in jazz—these melodic caucophanies appear throughout many of her songs, constructively defining the album.


Apple’s lyrics oscillate between bitterness and forgiveness in “Relay,” in which she recounts the experience of being sexually assaulted by a stranger at the age of 12 and lyricizes her eventual forgiveness. She starts the song with, “Evil is a relay sport / When the one who’s burned / Turns to pass the torch” and later sings on the same track, “But I know if I hate you for hating me / I will have entered the endless race.”


Apple uses an abundance of wordplay, but she manages to do so tastefully. Her vocabulary adds a sardonic undertone in songs such as “Under the Table,” in which Apple recounts a dinner she was unfortunately required to attend. She sings: “I would beg to disagree / But begging disagrees with me”. In a moment that could be read as standoffish, Apple recounts this experience with a certain rawness that is best articulated through her complex lyricism. 


If some of Apple’s songs seem filled with cynicism, then liberation serves as an equal counterpart; especially towards the end of songs like “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” a cacophony of barking dogs frees a melody which would otherwise seem to loop incessantly.


Apple’s anxiety and harsh vocals culminate on songs like “Newspaper” and “Rack of His.” 

Other songs on the album break that pattern in favor of whisper-like singing, such as in “Cosmonauts,” regarding the effort of enduring relationships, and the soft vocals that define the ballad-esque “Ladies,” an homage to female empowerment. Here, Apple is at her most polished. In “For Her,” Apple carefully undermines the patriarchy; the song’s poetic lyrics make it somewhat digestible, contrasted against a backdrop of heavy drums and gospel-like background vocals.


But not only is her album about the empowerment of women; “Heavy Balloon” is about the struggles Apple faces with depression. The restless energy of the song matches the lyrics--- through groovy bass and heavy drums, Apple bursts, “I’ve been sucking it in so long I’m bursting at the seams.”


Ritualistic looping and chant-like vocals paired with heavy drums featured on “Drumset” and “On I go” end her album on an almost spiritual note.  And yet, even with the last track, “On I go,” Apple breaks this ritual with an interruption. She stumbles over the hook, yet chooses to leave it in the final cut: “Aw, fuck, shit,” a reminder of the personal imperfections that are mostly masked by the mastery of her craft.


All in all, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” strikes a beautiful balance between the specific general, making it so that each song is relatable and equally sincere. Apple is not trying to be the archetype “bad girl” that people had labelled her after Tidal. If there were any people she thought of pleasing on her last album, those worries have proven to disappear. 


Apple, on “Newspaper,” encapsulates the feeling that listeners are left with after hearing the album a few times: “In my own way, I fell in love with you.”

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