Fiona Apple has increasingly stretched the boundaries of music with each release, so that it’s no longer driven by artifice but absolute remove. Her new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is nothing if not a natural progression for the famously reclusive singer then, who has established a slow-drip pattern of releasing material. It may be her most riveting album yet, which is a feat she’s secured with each release in a career that now spans four decades.
Apple starts the album with opener “I Want You to Love Me”, one of its more deceptively conventional tracks. Backed by pretty piano keys that invoke gentle blue skies, she coos with the rich alto fans have long recognized. However, the next track “Shameika” is more indicative of the album’s ethos: lacking a catchy chorus, Apple’s lyrics fixate on one vague line: “Shameika said I had potential”—and repeats it dozens of times by song’s end, no less decipherable with piano keys that clatter like drums.
By the third and fourth tracks—the title song and a ditty entitled “Under the Table”—the heavy, percussive, thread-bone instrumentation and Apple’s idiosyncratic musings threatened to put off even a lifelong fan like me, who essentially grew up with her music when were both teenagers at the dawn of her career in 1996. I’d been prepped by press releases that referenced an incendiary, stark track, “Hot Knife”, from her previous album, 2012’s The Idler Wheel… as a precursor to this album, but was still thrown for a loop—and I loved that track.
I pressed on, and to my chagrin fell for “Ladies”, which is most reminiscent of Apple’s earlier, more accessible work: swooning, lilting melodies with high production values and best of all, Apple’s voice at peak beauty. If one wants a pretty melody though, Apple is no slouch in that department either. “Ladies” is lovely, and shouldn’t be ashamed to be.
Suffice it to say, Cutters is not a pretty record though; but upon repeat listens, it’s certainly not easy to ignore either. After the tentative first round, I was drawn back to it and was able to hear it on its own terms. This is not a typical Fiona Apple record, but it’s that very ornery defiance that makes it an utterly typical Fiona Apple record.
The new album is like an exotic meal you try once—discovering that it’s not doused in sugar or spice or anything immediately definable—then you end up craving it for weeks after. That it also happens to be nutritious is only a bonus—this is music of and for the soul.
“Reinvention” is a cheesy word and would never apply to Apple, but the 42-year old singer has avoided repeating herself since arriving at the tender age of 18 in the only decade she could have gotten traction in: the 1990’s, when it was last plausible for a sad-looking and even sadder-sounding musician to go triple platinum, as she did.
Her debut, Tidal, was disarmingly honest and haunting, but with a pop sheen that she would never rely on again. She quickly dispelled all mounting doubts of being a fluke with her 1999 follow-up, When the Pawn… confidently establishing herself as a true sophisticate with a penchant for timeless melodies and mature craftsmanship on par with her hero, John Lennon. 2005’s Extraordinary Machine expanded her sound and conceptual reaches even more, and 2012’s The Idler Wheel… was her most innovative work yet: stripped down to sonic essentials, it only showcased her lyrical and melodic ingenuity further.
In hindsight, this discography set the stage for Cutters, which rests entirely on something Apple was never short of and still isn’t: authenticity. What draws the listener to the album isn’t escapism, so much as exorcism—of inner demons, anxieties, and revelations that have been percolating under the surface for years or even decades.
Much has already been written about the timely themes that permeate the tracks: Apple’s quest to give voice to the silent majority that still finds itself at the whims of an ostensibly masculine world. However, Apple has always held men accountable for their actions from the onset of her career. That she does so to this day is perhaps most revealing, politically, now. She also clearly ruminates on the tricky nature of female friendships in several songs on Cutters, which is new in her catalogue. “A girl could roll her eyes at me and kill,” she laments gingerly in the title track, needing no more explanation for the adolescent hell that still haunts most adults.
Chants, wordless vocalizing, and half-speaking fill the album—invariably centered on a phrase that does not belong in Top 40. They’re cathartic only in the capable hands of Apple: “Kick me under the table, I won’t shut up”, she repeats like a petulant preteen. It oddly becomes a mantra, not just literally but for its sheer attitude.
“I spread like strawberries/ I climb like peas and beans”, Apple shouts with conviction in “Heavy Balloon”, invoking a startlingly earthy and esoteric metaphor—a reference from a children’s book that described how the aforementioned flora grows.
It’s not to say that the album is devoid of indelible sounds. Aside from the more conventional tracks mentioned, “Hot Balloon” rouses with a pulsating percussive splash that seems to belie its meditation on depression. The title track has a serene, lazy, almost calypso-style lilt. “Under the Table” has perhaps the catchiest chorus, accented by a shimmering piano loop. “Cosmonaut” recalls the whimsical, melodic instrumentation of her mid-career albums.
Underscoring the visceral quality of this album, it was notable how relieving it was for me to listen to a pure, unabashed pop song from the rest of my itunes playlist afterwards. It made me appreciate that sort of music even more—while also simultaneously appreciating Fetch the Bolt Cutters more. There is a time for each urge; if I want unvarnished authenticity and raw muse literally caught on tape for secondhand witness, I will press play on this album repeatedly.