If the pandemic distance didn’t force us closer in spirit, one thing certainly will. It may not be a COVID vaccine, but a true gift to the world has finally arrived with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s fifth album, released Thursday evening.
The title, taken from a line spoken by Gillian Anderson on the BBC show The Fall, is an appropriate metaphor, however Apple means it. With the record, she cuts loose from any rules, except she's never seemed to follow any.
The musician takes a famously long time in between releases and isn’t afraid to lose fans in the process. Bolt Cutters follows up 2012's The Idler Wheel, and the eight years in between albums might’ve tested the patience of anyone else's fans, but Apple die-hards have a loyal curiosity akin to movie director Richard Linklater’s, who revisits his own characters through film across decades. She's always been worth checking in with, no matter the point in time.
A few years ago, Andrew Bird called her “one of the greats,” and like any of the greats would, with Bolt Cutters she’s departed from any plane of expectations into an unknown so unpredictably foreign that she jolts the listener at each percussive turn.
If you were expecting the sort of linear ballads of the likes of “Shadowboxer” and “I Know,” then you’ve certainly lost track of Apple’s gradual escape from convention.
Instead, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is an album full of “Hot Knife"s. There are no soaring romantic declarations, there's no soundtrack for our trail of tears, but affirmations and innovation.
Apple’s trajectory has been on par with Radiohead’s, as she’s stockpiled confidence, cracking an open space for the avant-garde that grows bolder with each release.
If Idler Wheel was Kid A, then Bolt Cutters is Amnesiac. The experimental output shows an unobstructed view of Apple’s abilities seemingly without creative constraints; it's complex, but not overwrought. Apple has never leaned on the lyrics and melody alone. They’ve made for strong pillars, but there’s a cinematic depth to her oeuvre, starting with the drama in her delivery.
Her grave, canyon-deep voice is uninhibited. Her vocals allow us to interpret the sentiment behind her lyrics exactly as she intended them, conveying emotion in its exact measure in every line. It’s poetry embellished by a maestro of an arranger and there’s no misjudging the weight of her words when delivered with such precision.
Through the years, listeners have made sense of the pain in Apple’s singular experience, and her complicated inner world, which has always read as sincere as our own. There’s a reason we keep dipping our entire beings into her work, now for the fifth album.
In the soul-burning track “Ladies” she seems to warn — or sympathize with — the future lovers of an ex, talk-singing one tempo behind what would be considered rapping, before her voice vibrates with feeling — repeating the line, “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through” in a hopeless mumble.
The landscape of Bolt Cutters is shaded with sound effects: barking, humming, panting. Apple shows us the inner workings of her state once more, but through ambient features. Unlike the confessionals of her past, her latest musical tale isn’t written in the style of naturalist writers of the 1800s, describing the corpses of love lost. We aren’t privy to the forensic evidence reconstructing a breakup, but to the self-actualization that comes in the tending of one’s wounds in the aftermath.
The singer asserts herself with, “Kick me under the table all you want/ I won't shut up, I won't shut up.” In the layered and upbeat “Under the Table.”
“Cosmonauts,” on the other hand, is self-accusatory as Apple denounces the kamikaze move of trapping one’s worth under the weight of someone else’s appraisal.
“When you resist me, hon', I cease to exist/ Because I only like the way I look, when looking through your eyes.”
The world finally joins Apple in her notorious reclusiveness, much of which has been mythicized. Yet while music stars plead for fans to take them to the No. 1 slots on the charts, Apple barely has to prove her existence periodically to satisfy fans that she’s still alive and active.
The singer has been consistently vocal in her politics and spoken up against President Donald Trump, donated money to refugees and even climbed out of the cave long enough to sing with fellow feminist alt-rocking icons St. Vincent and Shirley Manson.
Meanwhile, music scholars don’t tire of deep-diving into retrospective analyses of Apple’s catalog and her place in our culture. From music industry hellion to her “radical sensitivity,” acolyte singers study the micro-moods in her changing inflection.
From the sentimental piano in “I Want You to Love Me,” memorable like the soundtrack to an ’80s doomed-romance movie, Apple’s voice slides luxuriously at the bottom of her range as she takes on subjects like female relationships and rape.
“Good morning/ You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in,” she calls out, before a chorus of voices solidifies her gospel truth.
It doesn’t take an empathetic and involved listener to appreciate Apple’s genius, though she’s always presented high art, rather than background music. Apple’s records have struck a personal nerve, as we’ve immersed ourselves in her psyche so long that her thoughts become our own. NPR even made a listening party to commemorate the occasion of the release, because, Bolt the Cutters isn’t just a collection of songs, but a major cultural event.
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