Every Fiona Apple album has been sharper and more abrasive than the last, while remaining true to her characteristic hybrid of folk singer-songwriter conventions and vaudevillian musical comedy.
“Blast the music! Bang it, bite it, bruise it!” sings Fiona Apple, and she could be describing her new album. Out since April, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the sound of parlor music scraped to the bone. The singer-songwriter and pianist assembles jaunty, comedic musical settings from homemade ingredients: found percussion, metal cans, piano keys played like drums, animal cries, and her own raw voice. In the same spirit of defiance, she makes these her catchiest pop songs.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is Apple’s fifth album in 25 years. Since she became a star in the 1990s, with the hit “Criminal” from her 1996 debut Tidal, she has avoided the gestures of pop stardom and instead transformed herself into a reclusive cult singer-songwriter, dropping by once or twice a decade with a new collection of emotionally scouring set pieces. Belated follow-ups by many artists sound belabored, weighed down with extraneous production and crippling self-consciousness; instead, every Fiona Apple album has been sharper and more abrasive than the last, while remaining true to her characteristic hybrid of folk singer-songwriter conventions and vaudevillian musical comedy (a synthesis enabled by her piano playing).
Her last album, The Idler Wheel (2012), was a percussive marvel, excising the orchestrations of the preceding Extraordinary Machine (2005) for a dry, acoustic sound, keyed to Apple’s jazz piano and a colorful, often grating array of textured drums. Compared to The Idler Wheel, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is as crude and stark as The Idler Wheel was to Extraordinary Machine. The title, a metaphor for self-liberation, also nicely reflects the music: these songs clang as if played on construction equipment, household objects, homemade wood and wire sculptures; they edge into the realm of musique concrete. Even as it seems at perpetual risk of falling apart, the album is not fragile; the relentless whacking of musical furniture conveys a deep rhythmic drive. She’s found her raucous essence.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters jitters and lacerates, hammering out knotty percussive patterns. The title song constructs a coiled, multifaceted beat from a large collection of plates, silverware, snipping scissors, maybe a drum or two, and apparently the bones of her dead dog, as Apple singsongs her way through a declaration of autonomy; the thumping bass is the only conventional sonic element. At the end, the song fades into a chorus of barking dogs.
Her singing, which strikes a balance between Broadway talkiness and bluesy rasp, has always quavered, but on “Heavy Balloon” she really lets her voice bleed, declaring in a hoarse roar: “I spread like strawberries! I climb like peas and beans!” The accompanying clatter evokes banging on a rusty cast-iron skillet. Often she plays the piano like a drum too, as the blocky, spiraling figures on “Shameika” and “I Want You to Love Me” land with pounding force.
Although the album’s homemade jumble is what startles, there are solid pop structures beneath the serrated surface. Apple’s melodies are both simple and sinuous, like the Tin Pan Alley material she honors, and her bridges and choruses unfold with an old-fashioned intricacy; her trick is to play the catchiest hooks on the harshest instruments, achieving a skewed mix of sweet and sour. “Rack of His” glides over a distorted little riff that keeps circling in place, plucked out on high, taut strings that may not be perfectly in tune; the dissonance delights in part due to the melodic lilt.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters easily could have sounded like a deformation of classic pop, performed from an ironic, amateurish distance. Instead, the variety of found sounds acts as a reality principle, locating these tight, skillful songs in a clanky, dusty, decaying but visceral physical world. The album’s particular nervous energy arises from this tension between ideal and realization — between what is lost and gained in the specificity of performance.
Lyrical tensions emerge, too. While the majority of her catalog has pondered romance with an obsessive single-mindedness, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the first Fiona Apple album to include songs about her relationships with other women: friendships, mentorships, rivalries, chance encounters that stick with her. “Newspaper” is addressed to an abusive ex’s new girlfriend, as Apple writhes over the furious churn of the drums: “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me to make sure that we’ll never be friends,” she remarks — before growling in a voice about to fracture, “I watch him walk over you, talk over you, be mean to you/and it makes me feel close to you.”
The song is both deepened and deflated by the following “Ladies,” in which she approaches the same theme in the abstract, with gentle humor: it’s a pep talk addressed to all womankind, demanding an end to jealousy in the name of gender solidarity. “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies,” she announces, as if wagging her finger, while the acoustic bass and sighing backup singers sway grandly. As the melody builds, she delivers the big message: “Nobody can replace anybody else, so it would be a shame to make it a competition/and no love is like any other love, so it would be insane to make a comparison with you.” A mock lullaby, “Ladies” is so impassive as to burst with emotion.
There is a tendency among many critics to evaluate political lyrics by whether or not the writer agrees; this is as bloodless a mode of criticism as evaluating sung lyrics by how they read on the page. (Apple, whose rhymes are sometimes clunky but always funny, has been zinged for this.) Throughout Fetch the Bolt Cutters, rather than writing in a literal mode, Apple depicts herself and other characters struggling to face political realities, while the abrasive contortions of her singing suggest this struggle is deeply felt. Her feminist declarations follow the rules of confessional first-person songwriting — even, or especially, on the anti-Brett Kavanaugh playground chant “For Her,” she sounds like a real person thinking things through, reacting in the moment, and the album’s homemade, improvised sound reflects this spontaneity.
In her Pitchfork review, Jenn Pelly writes: “The very sound of Fetch the Bolt Cutters dismantles patriarchal ideas: professionalism, smoothness, competition, perfection — aesthetic standards that are tools of capitalism, used to warp our senses of self.” Historically, the opposite has been true, too: male critics have often faulted female musicians — and particularly piano players, including Apple — for failing to rock, a judgment linked to the critical demand for sexual candor. But Fetch the Bolt Cutters doesn’t rock in any received sense. It’s too stop-and-go and too intricate, as dozens of discrete drum-stabs accumulate. And maybe it’s also too desperate. Its comic breakneck momentum is Apple’s own, a new way of finding liberation in rhythm.
These songs about isolation and breaking free suit our current quarantined state, but this is a trite coincidence. Eight years in the making, Fetch the Bolt Cutters would have resonated regardless. Whether one is inside or outside, stuck or in motion, frustrated or delighted, it always feels good to make a joyful racket.