‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ Finds Fiona Apple at Her Most Unabashedly Avant-Garde and Liberated
When Fiona Apple broke into the scene with her 1996 hit “Criminal,” there were already signs that she was different. The tune was catchy, and the sound was fairly conventional, but when Apple glared into the camera amid the seedy backdrop of the song’s video, singing, “I need to be redeemed,” a tuned-in observer could sense an oncoming avalanche. In due time came the infamous MTV acceptance speech, in which Apple declared, “This world is bullshit.” Fast forward to 2005, the singer released “Extraordinary Machine,” dramatically setting herself apart from her peers in the mainstream alternative scene with which she had hitherto been associated. While her last release, “The Idler Wheel… “ was a relatively straightforward affair, Apple reminded us of her disregard for convention by giving the album a twenty-three word title. Now, she delivers “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” which lifts its title from a line actress Gillian Anderson uses in TV series “The Fall,” when freeing a girl from a torture chamber. The album finds Apple throwing all caution to the wind, embracing the avant-garde in a set of tortured, outlandish, percussion-driven explorations with a sonic freedom that parallels a stirring, underlying narrative of female liberation.
Opener “I Want You to Love Me” is relatively sparing in its eccentricities, softening the listener up for the absurdity that characterizes the album. Apple enters over a central piano figure, singing a hummable enough melody, and instantly making an impact with her distinctive, charged, vulnerable voice. She sings about an insurmountable desire to both love and be loved, and an accepting awareness of nature’s pull. Upon the chorus line, she holds the word “You,” flat and still, for an unnaturally long stretch, effectively conveying the sense of a desperate, indefinite wait. Her voice gets scratchier as the song progresses, and by the end, she has erupted into full Yoko Ono paroxysm.
“Shameika” follows, echoing “Not About Love” from “Extraordinary Machine” in both the musical stylings of the verse and the general feisty, theatrical intensity. In a flash, all Apple’s unadulterated verve and vitality is on full display. Apples sings about growing up a troubled outsider, counting the days away in seconds, and stomping on leaves as if they were crash cymbals. The unabashed bitterness and makeshift percussion throughout the album seem merely the latest realizations. There are ramshackle incidentals, offhand shrieks, and chillingly up-front repetitions of “Shameika said I had potential.” The shout outs to someone who believed in her only give way, however, to admissions that “I’ll never see her again.”
By the time the title track comes along, we have already descended into madness. Apple gets steadily more creative with percussion, credited on this track for playing the “metal butterfly.” A restrained backdrop of jazzy chords frames a racket of clanging clatter, barking dogs, and shabbily overlapping voicings of Apple musing, in casually expressive, spoken word inflections, about growing comfortable in her own skin. She recollects a cliquey social situation, and in a telling line reasons, “I’ve always been too smart for that / But you know what? My heart wasn’t,” before arriving at the resolution of the titular line, essentially an encapsulation of the entire album — an act of breaking free. The idea finds further expression in “Under the Table,” which begins with the lyrics,“I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me.” By this point, Apple’s percussive experiments are unhinged, with the palette of Wurlitzer, vibes, and organ somewhat balancing things out. Amid the chaos, the brief melodic interludes come supercharged, with Apple shifting shapes, taunting and withdrawing over chords that strike a nerve, then vanish. Apple’s refrain of “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up” is relatable enough, although one eventually wonders why the speaker might not rather block the kicks or kick back, instead of edging them on with such gusto, especially in the greater context of the album.
The passive resistance of “Under the Table” gains some perspective in “Relay,” in which Apple expounds, “If I hate you for hating me / I will have entered the endless race.” At this point, the songs so far assume a vague narrative arc, in which a mistreated misfit proceeds through stages of rebellion and restraint. The music here employs the machinery of age-old protest songs, with an evasive rhythmic grind, disturbed, howls of passion, woozy echoes of slave songs, vaguely voodoo yelps, atop a rickety riot, all dissipating into scattered operatic interjections. After all this scattered noise, “Rack of His” makes an immediate impact with an eerie melodic refrain that somehow gives the sensation of being overwhelmed by memory. There’s a haunting, relentless stomp, and a cinematic quality to it all that reaches its peak when Apple’s soulful outpourings soar into blood curdling screams. She sings of obsessive, unrequited love, circling back to the sentiments of the opening track. When she sings, “It was because I was loving you so much,” the simple directness and awkward grammatical construction have a chillingly candid effect that makes all the difference.
The deranged, off-kilter ceremonial sounds teased so far reach an apex on “Newspaper,” with Apple’s trembling, taunting voice hovering over a tortured choir to a rickery stomp, as she sings of finding solidarity with other women in their mutual suffering at the hands of an abusive lover. Apple explores this topic further on “Ladies,” but now takes a tone of resigned acceptance, over vibes and mellotron, albeit with an audible devilish tinge. She presents herself as merely one in a rotating cast of characters subject to a common partner’s disposal, inviting, “When he leaves me, please be my guest / To whatever I might have left.” Every passing track seems to be a bolder yet indulgence of witchy, tribal sounds, and by the point of “Heavy Balloon,” it becomes apparent that this is simply Fiona Apple’s new sound. Over another creeping, rattling dirge, Apple details the fate of the titular object. It’s the sound of buckling under an inevitable pressure, throwing in the towel, and seeming to relish it ever so slightly. “Cosmonauts” builds naturally on the “Heavy Balloon” theme, with Apple suggesting, “Make lighter of the heavier / ‘Cause you and I will be like a couple of cosmonauts.” The chaotic rumblings of the previous track, left unchecked, have devolved into a grating cacophony, and a twee melody, carried by fanciful electric autoharp, seeps its way occasionally in, only to dissipate promptly.
Apple and her sister Maude Maggart once covered Anton Karat’s “I’m In the Middle of a Riddle” — full Disney princess fare without a trace of Apple’s characteristic soulful stylings, revealing a hidden side that she can tap into as she pleases. “For Her” revisits this aesthetic, except that now the melodies are frayed at the edges, lain atop the now usual clamor, and the Disney sounds are decidedly deranged. A chorus of sloppily overdubbed Fiona Apples chant away, running through a litany of vivid, suggestive detail, shifting rhythms sporadically, before any beat gives in and Apple shrieks, “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” Suddenly, all has faded to pitch black, and discordant choirs linger and pull, dragging you further into the abyss. Apple recorded the song shortly after the swearing in of Brett Kavanaugh, and channeled the thought of his allegations into the song in a way that is beyond chilling.
There are lighter touches thrown in for balance. “Drumset” features a refrain of “The drumset is gone,” written when Apple mistook her drummer’s disappearance for a slight, relatively easy subject matter. The melody too is catchy and winsome, although fractured and removed in accordance with the general sonic theme. Boldly creative as ever, Fiona Apple is credited in the production notes for playing the “chair.” There is depth under the soft touches, heard in painfully bare and honest repetitions of “Why did you take it all away?” Finally, the last triumph comes in “On I Go,” a track inspired by Vipassana chant, a strident stomp that reduces the percussive emphasis heard throughout the album to its core, with Apple repeating a mantra, reflecting, “Up until now in a rush to prove / But now I only move to move.” With this acceptance, she has come full circle.
Even if the writing were on the wall for ages, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” comes as quite a shocker. The album is to “Extraordinary Machine” as that album was to “Tidal,” and even that is an understatement. It’s as if “Hot Knife,” the freakish outre track from Apple’s last album, “The Idler Wheel…,” has become the standard, and Apple has gone off on a tangent, ending up in some faraway, fantastical land. One comparison that comes to mind, in terms of abrupt stylistic leaps, is “The Dreaming”-era Kate Bush. Moreover, the title track of that album is in line with the predominant spirit of Apple’s latest — haunting, deranged, tribal, spirited. Of course, Apple’s music still has a decidedly soul slant, which gives it a different feel altogether. You can hear a long lineage of protest music in the tracks, abstracted and removed. There’s an unabashed, outspoken feminine voice at the helm, and a devilish scapegoat of a central figure in the narrative. A once passive character puts a foot down in the title track, gains traction in “Under the Table,” amasses support in “Newspaper,” sounds a siren in “For Her,” and triumphantly breaks free in “On I Go,” in a trajectory of pronounced female liberation. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters'” fearless sonic experimentation is the musical expression of this newfound freedom. Apple has set out to provoke and agitate, to shock and spellbind, and she has succeeded.
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is available April 17 on Apple Music.