Eight years. What was the world like for you in 2012? We all thought the world was going to end, but little did we know what 2020 had in store for us. Fiona Apple’s last record, the critically lauded The Idler Wheel…, was one of the defining albums of that year with all of its confessional art-pop madness. Fiona Apple has always been nothing short of a lyrical genius. On Fetch The Bolt Cutters, however, she blends a percussive production style with lyrical structures that directly parallel the different narrative threads that work together to create this majestic tapestry of an album.
It is easy to approach Fetch The Bolt Cutters as a step outside of the slickness of mainstream pop — which it is. Nonetheless, for every step away from that glamorous pop sheen, Fiona takes three steps towards the devil-may-care atmosphere of jazz music and the solemn melancholy of the blues. This much is evident in Bolt Cutters‘ opening track, “I Want You To Love Me.” The transformative rock opera-inspired ballad is a love song that seems to be dedicated to Apple’s significant other and Apple herself. The general theme of the album is breaking out of a prison that you have allowed yourself to be locked in; Apple is pointedly refusing any silence that is being forced onto her. The first step to self-liberation is self-love, and this sly introductory track balances metaphysical poetry with jarring instrumental arrangements, especially the almost orgasmic ad-libs in the outro. Apple explores self-liberation in extraordinary ways on Fetch The Bolt Cutters. The title track employs repetition in a markedly intentional manner. Often in mainstream pop, complaints about repetitive hooks and choruses bog down albums and EPs. With “Fetch The Bolt Cutters,” and other tracks on the album, the repetition works as a form of verbal manifestation in the way that tracks on Solange’s When I Get Home did. Apple is manifesting her own freedom in these songs. The title track details the prison she felt she allowed the media to box her into, and with every shift in intonation and enunciation of the line, “fetch the bolt cutters” becomes a revolutionary manifesto, not just a pretty-sounding lyric. Similarly, “Shameika,” the second track on the album, uses repetition of a single line as the chorus to anchor the sprawling storytelling that characterizes Apple’s music. The relationship between “Shameika,” which has legitimate radio potential, and the title track, is one of a person internalizing the promise that others see in them and parlaying that into a fully owning their person.
Apple’s journey of self-liberation on Fetch The Bolt Cutters exists at the intersection of two distinct narrative thread: one being romantic and the other political. “Rack of His,” on first listen, has this energy of dejected self-objectification, but there’s a subtle hopefulness in the “I know how to spend my time” refrain that closes the song. Then there’s “Cosmonauts,” an adventurous track where Apple somehow finds a balance between the blindness of eternal devotion and the cramped physicality of shared space through monogamy. Like Apple said in her New Yorker profile, these are love songs that evolve with every listen, but their end goals are the same: a steady progression towards a brighter and unfractured Fiona. In terms of the album’s political bent, it almost feels like a cop-out to connect recent albums by womxn to the #MeToo movement. Nevertheless, the movement does leave its mark on one of the album’s tracks: the scathing “For Her.” The anthem is a case study on Apple’s frustrations with the routine disbelief that survivors of sexual violence have faced and continue to face. One of the standouts on the album, “For Her” utilizes a towering choir of vocal stacks and an abrupt switch to a bluesy tempo in its second half to drive home the warlike mood. “Under the Table,” also functions as a smart bridge between the personal and political threads of Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Over these beautifully bright piano chords, Apple sings about refusing to be silent or pushed “under the table.” It is the brilliant bridge (“I would beg to disagree/But begging disagrees with me”), however, that really makes the track shine. Once again, Apple’s use of repetition comes into play, but on “Under the Table” they function as battle cries more than they do as traditional hooks or choruses. The best track on the album, “Relay,” falls on the more overtly political side of the record. The track is a rumination on how societal evils are cyclical by way of historical privileges and our mentality that “the one who’s burnt” must “pass the torch.” “Relay” is so powerful because Apple gets her point across through not only the sharp lyricism but also through the literal cyclical structure of the song. The song moves in a circle from impassioned chants to softer moments of understanding. Every individual element of the song works in tandem with the other, similar to the way “Newspaper” completely eschews traditional song structures and feels like one long literal newspaper article.
There is no such thing as a perfect piece of art, but Fetch The Bolt Cutters comes scarily close. Apple’s reliance on the dark percussive instrumentation provides the perfect cinematic backdrop for her intelligent songwriting. She’s operating at the height of her powers here, and it’s thrilling to watch and listen to.
Key Tracks: “Relay”; “For Her”; “Shameika”; “Heavy Balloon”