The idea that Fiona Apple’s album was a music event of profound proportions was enhanced by the excellent New Yorker portrait that came out a few weeks prior to its release. The article was digested and dissected, and the only unfortunate aspect occurred when the part of the feature that most publications adjudged to be of particular interest concerned Apple only in relation to two of her famous ex-partners. Her’s is a career that has been mostly defined by the male gaze and it would do well to let that die because – simply put – Apple is an American artist of the highest quality.
In much the same way that Brecht or Kafka outgrew their own modes to create their own artistic world, Apple seems to be going that way too. Fetch The Bolt Cutters defies categorisation; it persists in a maelstrom of its own creation. On her fifth album, Apple’s virtuoso piano prevails at times as always, but this is her most uniquely percussive record, recorded in her Venice Beach home and using its surrounds to fill out the record’s sound. In this way it ironically stands as a marvel of self-isolation – it’s raw and makeshift but it all pulls together in pursuit of her uncompromising vision. Apple’s home comes to symbolise a musician so in control of her rhyme and reason. The record is often so individualistic as to be avant-garde, a truly singular eruption. Even the opening song “I Want You To Love Me” is richer in multitudes than most other people can manage in an entire album. Driven by Apple’s signature piano, it’s immediate and urgent – when she wildly wails at its culmination, she sounds at once relieved and exhausted by her own exertions.
There has always been a preternatural aspect to Apple’s ability, the wild wunderkind of the 1990s (which led to the overwrought patriarchal scrutiny that plagued her in the first place) and it’s something she acknowledges in this record. On the pounding “Shameika”, Apple recalls a girl at her middle school who “says I have potential”. “Relay” is built around the lyrics that she wrote back when she was 15, the incantation “evil is a relay sport, when the one who’s burnt, turns to pass the torch”. But there is humour present in her writing, too, from the comical cry of “check out that rack of his!” on “Rack of His” to the droll “kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up” in “Under The Table”. Apple has always been a lyricist of great depth and abundance and it’s no different now.
The album’s title came from a scene in the television show The Fall, where Gillian Anderson’s character said “fetch the bolt cutters” to the police in order to release a girl who has been tortured. The phrase defines the whole record and one feels it will soon become iconic. Apple has described it as meaning to break out of whatever symbolic prison you have found yourself contained in. “Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long”, she sings on the titular track, both a paean of hope for her listeners and an acknowledgement that she spent too much time trapped in her own situation; Apple never shies away from grappling with her past. Further into “Fetch The Bolt Cutters” she laments “while I had not yet found my bearings, those it girls hit the ground, comparing the way I was to the way she was, sayin’ I’m not stylish enough and I cry too much, and I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet”. At moments like this, the album feels like Apple’s attempted intervention with her listener’s lives – “don’t go through the trials I had to go through”, it seems to shout.
Of course Apple directs her vehemence toward toxic masculinity, as she has always done. “Ladies” begins with a languid and self-aware chant of that word “ladies” and is ultimately a song of compassion and connection: “when he leaves me, please be my guest, to whatever I mighta left in his kitchen cupboards, in the back of his bathroom cabinets”. Apple stated that the album is a lesson in not letting men pit women against each other and this message is never more in evidence than during this song, bursting as it does with empathy.
Similar empowerment is invoked in “For Her”, a fierce and raging protest song. It was composed shortly after the horrid nomination hearings of the US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Apple burns with furious injustice as she sings “you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”. Her voice is then multi-tracked at the end of the song which gives it a hymnal quality, and sadly instills a sense of commonality with the experience of the unnamed woman in the song.
What this album stands for above all else is for a sense of freedom. It’s a refusal to be silenced, to be marginalised, and it feels like she has been leading to this point for a while. “I’ve waited many years, every print I left upon the track, has led me here, and next year, it’ll be clear, this was only leading me to that”. Apple has created a work so full of power and realness as to be almost unmatched. Fetch the bolt cutters: a new American classic has arrived.