It feels like Fiona Apple really got a big head start on us with this whole quarantining thing. Fans do not need to be reminded that it’s been eight years since her previous album, “The Idler Wheel…” (though they probably will require a refresher on its full 23-word title, which once might have been committed to memory). Anybody else who disappeared as a recording artist for that long would have been out flogging the catalog, something that is assuredly not her bag; even the intermittent cameos she used to do at L.A.’s Largo club halted as she retreated ever inward. That seemed just as it should be, up to a point: In four scant previous albums over a quarter-century, Apple had become pop music’s queen of extremely interior designs.
But reading the recent 10,000-word New Yorker profile, you could wonder, as you would of anyone who spent years making an album, if it might end up feeling hermetically sealed inside Apple’s head. “I’m so anxious about this album,” an acquaintance tweeted last week. Maybe he meant “eager,” but if he intended to convey actual album-eve anxiety, well, he wouldn’t have been alone in that.
So it feels good to take “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” off our plate of concerns and move it over to the mantle of things that will bring us joy while we’re locked down. Indulgent only in the right ways, it might even be Apple’s best album. But as she says in one of the songs, “No love is like any other love, so it would be insane to make a comparison,” so maybe we’ll forget about rankings and just affirm that it is album-of-the-year contender material. Which is not to guarantee that it’ll be, like, popular; much of the material is challenging on first listen, and smoothness is a quality Apple consigns to criminals, not her own middle-period work. But damn, it’s good, in a rich and deep way that’ll have you reaching for headphones and a lyric sheet to rediscover different choice morsels in the coming weeks or months of this shared lockdown. It’s a musical food bank unto itself.
“Bedroom pop” has somehow become an accepted genre in recent years, and Apple’s album is the most sophisticated possible version of that: “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” was made largely at home, with the same core of three other musicians (Amy Aileen Wood, Sebastian Steinberg, David Garza) sharing production credit and doing virtually all of the playing. An additional credit does go to a couple of dogs for “collar jangles and thrashing,” and this is the kind of album where songs might begin or end with the casual sound of shuffling, humming, strumming or, yes, barking. And so much of the percussion on the album consists of Tom Waits-ian use of possibly random surfaces for syncopation (Steinberg gets a “lighter on Wulitzer” credit on one tune) that you’d tend to call it an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach… except that it’s hard to be certain that that churning sound at the end of “Shameika” isn’t a garbage disposal. But emphasizing these sound effects, odd intros and outros and drum clutter risks making the record sound low-fi, which is hardly the case. The luxuriant-feeling production design, usually based around turning nothing more than piano, acoustic bass and drumsticks into something deeply spacious, is a happy thing to get lost and found in.
But the question everyone will look to have answered with “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” isn’t a musical puzzle — it’s “How’re you feeling, Fiona?” Because what fans have always appreciated about Apple is that in one sense she’s all raw, exposed nerves, and in another, she’s as cerebral as singer-songwriters get, possibly to a mind-racing fault. Each of the 13 songs here is about a very specific experience or emotion, and they’re almost (almost) conventional in how coherent, if not laser-focused, they all are — although it doesn’t hurt to have that recent New Yorker piece by the bedside as a decoder ring for some of what she’s writing about.
The opening “I Want You to Love Me” is the album’s purest and perhaps only expression of unfiltered desire, taking place over a cascade of 6/8 thunder on the lower end of the piano keys that threatens to become discordant until it pulls back into furious beauty. “I know none of this will matter in the long run,” she sings, facing the perils of mortality and impermanence as all us Netflix addicts are right now — but “while I’m in this body, I want somebody to want,” she further declares, singing herself hoarse over the intricately played riffs. (All this lust for love crescendos in some vocal gymnastics that sound like an homage to Yoko — early Yoko, mind you — which might be the exact moment when you decide whether this is the album for you.)
But much of the rest of the album is concerned with variations on a theme: bullying. In the second number, an even more frantically played 6/8 workout called “Shameika,” Apple recalls a nervous childhood in which the mean girl of the title told her that she “had potential,” a strange mixed message that she took to heart somehow. In a beautiful illustration of the fine line between obsessive-compulsive disorder and music, she describes walking to and from the schoolyard “grinding my teeth to a rhythm invisible” and stomping on fallen leaves to make them into crash cymbals.
It’s a short trip from that to several songs that have her bullied by an adult male significant other. “Under the Table” has a man tapping her on the shin, unseen, trying to hush her at a dinner party she didn’t want to attend: “That fancy wine won’t put this fire out… Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up,” she repeats, melodically but firmly, in the great sing-along refrain of what feels like this generation’s update of Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry.”
Apple certainly knows how to train her attention on a bad, bad guy, and sometimes for a mordant laugh, as in “Rack of His,” which is as funny as you’d hope from the promising title. Yes, it’s about a musician. “Check out that rack of his, look at that row of guitar necks / Lined up like eager fillies, outstretched like legs of Rockettes,” she sings. “I thought you would wail on me like you wail on them.” These are obvious, and wonderful, laugh lines, but she also has a way of bringing a song back from the land of similes and smiles to something a little bit spookier by the time it’s all over.
Even more interesting than some of the songs about men are the ones about women — specifically, her fascination with the ones who hooked up with her partner after her. She sometimes pairs thematically aligned songs together in the running order of the album, and “Newspaper” and “Ladies” are two psychologically savvy and self-searching numbers in a row in which Apple admits either a voyeuristic interest in or misplaced desire to rescue her ex-lover’s new beau (“I watch him walk over, talk over, be mean to you, and it makes me feel close to you”).
Also grouped together are “Heavy Balloons” and “Cosmonauts,” two successive tunes that use similar metaphors about ballast and feeling weighted down to completely different moods and effect. There’s no companion piece, though, for the lyrically heaviest song, “For Her.” It’s surely not by accident that this is the one number on the album in which Fiona sings and plays everything herself, given the personal nature of the subject matter. The brilliance of “For Her” is that it feels completely improvised, with its stream of consciousness and unpredictable tempo changes — except that it also sounds completely precise, in the way Apple has overdubbed her own voice. It’s hard to tell where exactly she’s going with this tale of a coke-snorting demon lover, until she sort of quotes a song from “Singin’ in the Rain,” followed by a shock line: “Good mornin’, good mornin’ / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.”
That number obviously gets at just how sober and bracing “Bolt Cutters” can get, in moments, but it doesn’t spend so much time there that it’s anything but a wickedly pleasurable sit, playful in its gonzo expansiveness and eager to perk up your ears with an unexpected melodic shift or hip-hop-influenced way of witty speak-singing. It’s the kind of work where you come away thinking Apple is just like you and also 10 times more brilliant than you — and a little exhausting, sure, but with a creative ingenuity that’s inexhaustible in the way it draws you back in to hit “play” every time the last notes sound.
The closing song, which dispenses with her gift for quirky melodic turns to surrender itself to pure rhythm, could practically have been written as an anthem for a sheltering-at-home generation that’s now wondering what its big hurry ever was. “Up until now in a rush to prove / But now, I only move to move,” she chants in the closing moments.
Our quarantine companion did still have something to prove, whether she liked it or not —that she hadn’t been squandering her ability to move us. Rather than sounding as labored over as it obviously was, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” sounds as fresh as something that crossed Apple’s fertile mind 10 minutes ago. It may be way early to say it’s the most satisfying album of the year, but if there are any more to come along this good, 2020 is not going to feel like such a waste of time after all.
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