Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a masterful exploration of the untethered unknown.
Upon first listen, it’s objectively clear that Fiona Apple has made an album that could prove to be the best of her career. It crackles and booms with a blustery energy. It shifts and regroups, bobs and weaves. It rarely takes the time to set down long enough to put a label on it. It has a confident strength beyond her previous releases despite having had a reputation as a fiery, obstinate, passionate woman from the beginning.
Pain and sadness are heavy lodestones. They seek out patterns, recognizable ways that you’ve been burned in the past and they reinforce those betrayals. They also become comfortable places to dwell when you become accustomed to them. The unknown is untethered, it has nowhere to stick. No familiar receptors on which to bind.
Since her debut Tidal hit the cd racks in ’96, Apple has been an inescapably earnest voice. Calling out bullshit wherever it may arise; be it with a boyfriend, herself, or the world at large. Examination and self-exploration served as her hallmarks. This position in pop culture did a world of good and it led to the creation of some phenomenal records. When the Pawn… remains a benchmark for soulful expression. A brilliant collision of blues and jazz in the heyday of alternative, with its elephant stomp piano and circus merry-go-round melodics. Extraordinary Machine then solidified her status as queen troubadour of sincerity with its plunky waltzes and frequent flourishes of eloquent dissection. However, throughout her career, there has always been this lumbering weight to her output. The heft of the lodestone.
2012’s The Idler Wheel… was met with excitement and some acclaim given the scarcity of her centenary offerings but it seemed like a piece to a puzzle which we couldn’t yet see the bigger picture. Her arrangements were beginning to unravel giving her space to explore beyond the confines of standard structure but the subject matter remained, perhaps a little tepid at this point. Little did we know that this was merely a stepping stone for Apple to make a sizeable leap across the river.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an adventurous exploration of the untethered unknown. A masterstroke of wildly inventive percussion-centric poetry. It flies free with boundless space to explore, no doubt thanks to being largely conceived and recorded at Apple’s home. The brilliance of her recordings has always had a great deal to do with her choice of collaborators and how they conjure grooves as a unit. This record’s penchant for inventive percussion and frenetic rhythm section experimentation comes from her collaboration with drummer Amy Aileen Wood and bassist Sebastian Steinberg. Frequent band member and occasional opening act guitarist David Garza rounded out the production team. This band-style creative crucible seems to be responsible for the album’s liberated feel. The relationship of one singer-songwriter | one producer can have tremendous results but can also leave the material feeling pigeon-holed. The artist lays down their raw ideas and the producer, with the help of their hired guns, carves out the tracks into hit material. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, countless great albums have been made that way, however, it tends to yield a specific kind of product.
The next thing that strikes you about this record is the subject matter. Apple’s bread and butter has been the tangled relationship she has with men, like two duelling swordsmen chained together at one wrist. The lust, guilt, rage, longing, resentment, and for fleeting moments, tender love. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is different, Apple is extricating herself from all that. Her magnifying glass is on herself (albeit in a far less self-chastising manor) as well as her fellow women. ‘I Want You to Love me’ launches the album in a pulse of enlightened desire. Encouraging and excited piano opens the album like the first sunny days of a long-overdue spring. She declares her desires free of the baggage of shame or inane games, with a holistic understanding of the cosmic perspective:
“I move with the trees, in the breeze
I know that time is elastic
And I know when I go
All my particles disband and disperse
And I’ll be back in the pulse
And I know none of this, will matter in the long run
But I know a sound, is still a sound around no one
And while I’m in this body, I want somebody to want
And I want, what I want and I want
You to love me”
She even takes a page from fellow artistic luminary Yoko Ono, capping the song off with some of Ono’s signature stuttering yelps.
From there we’re taken on an exhilarating ride. Not the rollercoaster of torrid, love-sick emotion that characterized her previous efforts but an exploration of life uncaged from that struggle. Kinetic, rolling piano lines propel the scrappy childhood reminiscing ‘Shameika’. The fiery tribal rhythm of ‘Relay’ is pounded out using kitchen utensils. Apple proclaims “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch!” while Steinberg revs things up with ascending bass slides amidst nimble fretboard ticklings.
The title track is one of the calmer moments on the album, perhaps a testament to her unshaken resolve to live unbound. Again featuring the kitchen orchestra, an elegantly intertwined play between the bells and bass backs Apple’s loosely sung contemplations. Her lively gang of rescue dogs fill in the gaps in the lyrics and bark out the outro. Another sign of happy levity.
The first third of the album whooshes by in a series of loosely structured movements. The middle third is comprised of some of the more weighty material, anchored down with some of Apple’s most idiosyncratic hooks to date. Scattered ambient noises evolve into the head-weaving beat of ‘Newspaper’. Apple pens a conciliatory letter to a woman with whom she shares an ex. She unleashes her coarse roar on the track with little instrumental melody to get in the way. Her investigation of womanhood finds the most focus on ‘Ladies’, a swaying two-cocktails-in groove where Apple swings from a hopeful decree to bury the hatchet on this culture of competition to the resigned conclusion: “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through”.
‘Heavy Balloon’ serves as an anthem for the anxious. A string of novel, oddball metaphors get to the root of the gnawing nature of anxiety. All the while, Apple persists with a dogged determination to overcome those ever-present voices. That pernicious growl once again solidifies her place as one of the most interesting women in music. The partner-in-crime ode ‘Cosmonauts’ is the sibling of the opener ‘I Want You to Love Me’ being the two main tracks of frank optimism on the record. Fans will find it has the most common ground with Apple circa Extraordinary Machine (incidently, she had previously recorded the song with Jon Brion in 2012). Trodding piano interspersed with playful moments of Alice in Wonderland fairy dust.
In one of the more telling decisions of her new state, Fetch the Bolt Cutters doesn’t end with a series of heavy-footed ballads or a bolstering nostalgic waltz. ‘On I Go’ is brazenly bull-headed in its forward thrust into the unknown. No time for wistful. The merciless, bordering on mechanical drums have an industrial feel that reiterates in ever-changing patterns. Swells of errant feedback and aberrantly bowed bass accent the locked-in rhythm. Apple leaves us with a mantra of unswayed resolve.
“On I go, not toward or away
Up until now it was day, next day
Up until now in a rush to prove
But now I only move to move”
There’s an intrinsic universality to great albums but often the thing that can put them over the edge into masterpiece territory is when they hit the public at the exact right time. Fetch the Bolt Cutters could not have found a more fitting time to be released. This pandemic has led us all into isolation mode, a state that Fiona Apple has intentionally inhabited for some time now. She’s not a complete hermit but she does seem to remove herself somewhat from the dredge of society’s current battles and the vapid scourge of celebritarianism and lemmings it attracts. This uncoupling has allowed her to make a record that naturally flows from her stream of consciousness. Unburdened, unapologetic, raw, electric, eccentric, honest, and free. Now with everyone in a similar situation to how she lived writing it, a larger group will be able to feel connected to those concepts. And aren’t those the ways in which we want to live? The arrival of a new Fiona Apple album always seems to come as a reality check. A behavioural gut-check accompanied by an expansion or complete reinvention of whatever genre it is that she belongs to. Masterpiece? 10/10? Those appraisals are indeed deserved.