Music Reviews

In Full-Throated Defiance, Fiona Apple Fetches the Bolt Cutters


Genre: Art Pop

Favorite Tracks: “Shameika,” “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” “Under the Table,” “Newspaper,” “Heavy Balloon”

It’s refreshing when a press junket is grounded in reality, and grounding was something I desperately needed going into FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS. At the time of this writing, it has the highest scoring of all time on Metacritic, and Pitchfork gave it their first perfect score in over a decade. Given that WHEN THE PAWN…, her 1999 sophomore release of devastatingly husky vocals, beautifully alien texture, and crisp piano melodies, is possibly my favorite record of all time, my expectations were raised to a point that could realistically never be reached.

Her bassist, Sebastian Steinberg, was not wrong when he said that the record would take cues from IDLER WHEEL closer “Hot Knife,” a track that was driven by heavy bass drums and striking vocal arrangements. Rather than simulating a sexual ecstasy, these production tricks on FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS are used to sell monstrous anger and create constant tension. The other narrative of the press junket was that, in addition to her troubled mental state and various bad romances, Fiona’s relationship with other women would serve as a major theme. Both of these thematic developments complement each other perfectly across the album, helping to create another undeniably spectacular record, even if those that are not already wooed by Apple are going to feel alienated by its lyrical and musical harshness.

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Regardless of these new developments, Apple has not abandoned the skills that made her a star in the first place. There’s the intricate piano melodies of “I Want You to Love Me” and “Shameika,” brilliant metaphors about depression on “Heavy Balloon” or the cycle of abuse on “Relay,” singularly devastating lines like “Because I only like the way I look when looking through your eyes” on “Cosmonauts,” and bitter sarcasm that turns pillow-soled hiking boots into the greatest insult of all time on “Under the Table.” The melodies crash harder than ever, the instrumental palette is dense without feeling overwhelming, and the lyrics are just as insightful and compelling whether they are obtuse or blunt.

Percussion has always been important to Apple, and while the affinity for unique drum sounds from THE IDLER WHEEL has not changed, structure and arrangement are experimented with more so on FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS. As forecast, it’s occasionally similar to “Hot Knife,” but with the force of a Led Zeppelin tune and arranged in an even more claustrophic and manic manner. Fiona deemed it a percussion orchestra, and it’s a perfect match for her vocals. There are shades of the tasteful restraint of EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE like on “Ladies,” but most of the record is Fiona Apple at her most demented and wild, made all the more effective by multi-tracking and layers of backing vocals. She knows when to use each of these techniques to their fullest: the switch from ethereal cooing to cluttered squabbling on “Cosmonauts,” or the restrained coyness turned lo-fi belting on “Rack of His,” both complement the many emotions she’s going through .

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I was stunned to learn that across Apple’s previous four records, only three songs (“I Know,” “Window,” “Periphery”) mention other women. There’s nothing wrong with only writing about herself and her partners, but if FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS is any indication, we have been denied some of her best material. Similar to the transgressive juxtaposition of calls for unity alongside female serial killers on White Lung’s PARADISE, Apple blends empathy for those hurt by powerful men with female friendships ruined by the infuriating need to win male approval. The title track shows how other women put her down for not being an “it girl,” placed instead into a box that she feels the need to remove with bolt cutters. “Ladies” finds her pleading with other women to not get angry at who men cheat with because they are all ultimately the victims of his lies. The most dramatic take on this theme comes on “Newspaper,” an absolutely hellish song with Apple at her most unhinged amidst tense humming and constant plinking, like something from the Crazy World of Arthur Brown or another proto-psychedelic rock band. She tries to reach out to her ex’s new girl that has been berated and hurt by him like Apple has, only for the girl to turn against her due to the ex’s lies. It’s a deeply uncomfortable tune that shows how trauma can unite but also divide, and an easy contender for her best.

Even at her most experimental, Apple always stuck to a traditional structure, but that’s been thrown out the window here in favor of a rough, unrefined presentation. It’s easily her most indulgent record to date, which can be and is often turned into a strength, provided the emotions are palpable and the performances are magnetic. The big exception to this is the final three songs on the record. Apple has a history of great closing songs, especially the mature finality of “I Know” on WHEN THE PAWN… that serves as a great counterpoint to the record’s anger in the same way that “Someone Like You” was the perfect ending to Adele’s 21. However, “Drumset” and “On I Go” are not novel or interesting enough to justify their repetition, and “For Her” is a well-intentioned ode to those like Christine Blasey Ford that sadly feels undercooked compared to other tunes that explore similar themes. ”Relay” is another time where the slapdash structure hurts an otherwise exciting song: the mixed metaphor of a torch burning you when passed is brilliant, and the skronking bass and stacked vocals in the verses sell the track perfectly, but the second half dissolves into disjointed guitar licks and humming, reintroduces lyrics after a minute, and then fades into nothingness without any final crescendo.

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In her 1997 Grammy acceptance speech. Fiona Apple famously said “the world is bullshit.” On FETCH THE BOLT CUTTERS, that statement is not said in melodramatic, teenage angst but in full-throated defiance. For those not in her personality cult, that difference will not be self-evident, and therefore the rough presentation will seem like an irritant rather than the point. On a musical and emotional level, she’s no longer satisfied with remaining trapped in a box of her own or others’ making, and therefore wants to cut herself loose (literally). It’s unsurprising that the record is winning acclaim now in our current quarantine—I can only hope that in the future, it will continue to resonate with listeners of all genders when its relevance is not as obvious, even though it probably should be.

Blake Michelle
Unqualified, unfiltered, unbiased, but not uninspired reviewer of whatever these people tell me to review.

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    1. […] last album Sternberg listened to was Fiona Apple’s excellent EXTRAORDINARY MACHINE, the first album he ever purchased was LIFE’S BEEN GOOD by […]

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