The New York-based singer-songwriter emerges from another years-long silence to deliver her most stunning, enthralling, off-the-rails album yet, an absolutely riveting musical experience.
Originally published on 4/20/20.
Fiona Apple McAfee-Maggart, best known by her first and middle name, has been a staple of the art pop genre since the mid-90s, yet is also famously reclusive. She’s spent almost her whole career releasing one album every several years before retreating from the spotlight once again. Back in 1996, at just 18, she released her first album Tidal, an album that displayed a talented, surprisingly mature voice in piano rock; she ended up winning both a Grammy and a VMA for the hit single “Criminal.” Three years later, the even better When the Pawn… updated her sound a little bit, with stronger songwriting and arrangements that showed what she was truly capable of. After a much-publicized battle with her label, Apple’s third album Extraordinary Machine was finally released in 2005, a record that continued her quality streak despite not really changing her sound at all. Things wouldn’t get absolutely heart-stopping, of course, until 2012 with the excellent The Idler Wheel…, an album that showcased a much more intimate side of her. Stripping back her style for a larger focus on sound-play, self-recorded percussive sounds and loops, and emotional potency, The Idler Wheel… is her best album to date.
Or it was – until April 17th, 2020.
Where to even start with Fetch the Bolt Cutters? With the fact that it’s a complete and utter overhaul of the sound she built her name on? That it’s her most powerful musical statement yet? That it should be considered mandatory listening for anyone who claims to be a fan of good music? What about its remarkable achievement of being (at the time of this review’s upload) the highest-rated album on Metacritic, as well as being the first new record since 2010 to get a perfect score from Pitchfork? See, once in a while there comes an album that is so radical, so disorienting, so dumbfounding in its greatness that it’s genuinely difficult for the listener to gather all their thoughts about it, even after multiple listens. Ladies and gentlemen, we have another album in that category.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is compelling, dense, stunning, enthralling, engrossing, at times harrowing, and above all endlessly creative. Every single one of these thirteen excellent tracks burrows itself deep into your brain and refuses to leave (not that you’d want them to, mind you – I myself have listened to it over a dozen times already). Apple has never released an album like this before – and frankly, neither has anyone else – yet this feels like an album that could only come from an artist of her caliber late in their long and storied career. This record is almost completely different from her past work in every conceivable way, from the musical arrangements, to the vocals, to the songwriting, to the recording process, to even the cover art (which shows a cropped photo of Apple making a more-than-a-little-unsettling face flanked by crudely-drawn text). If you thought The Idler Wheel… was sonically rough around the edges, wait till you hear this one.
Apple recorded the bulk of Fetch the Bolt Cutters in her own home with collaborators Davíd Garza, Sebastian Steinberg, and Amy Aileen Wood. There was seemingly very little in the way of acoustic treatment during the sessions, with even more of a focus on custom percussion than ever before. (Much of this percussion came from the use of household objects, which just makes the sound designer in me all the more in love with this album.) As a result, much of the record is tinged with natural room reverb, allowing Fetch the Bolt Cutters to sound more intimate than any other album she’s released. Tape hiss and background noise is prominent through much of the record, which ends up going a long way; honestly, this album simply would not have the power it does if it sounded as squeaky-clean as Apple’s previous records. Unusual sounds pop up at various points, such as a chorus of several barking dogs in the final moments of the title track. It all comes together in the best way possible, creating a totally unique experience. There’s a reason why Pitchfork writer Jenn Pelly said of this album “no music has ever sounded quite like it.”
The vocals throughout Fetch the Bolt Cutters are some of the best Apple has ever laid to tape, period. While she has experimented with her voice in the past (especially on The Idler Wheel…), here she is completely untethered, taking on a different vocal character on just about every track. From satisfying defiance (“Under the Table”), to burning jealousy (“Relay”), to longing for love (“I Want You to Love Me”), to righteous anger (“For Her”), to wry sweetness (“Ladies”), to absolutely belting out her emotional troubles (“Heavy Balloon”), Apple shows a range on this album that has never made itself known in her music before, and it is absolutely riveting.
Like the vocals, the lyrics on Fetch the Bolt Cutters are nothing short of incredible. Throughout the record, Apple goes on full-blown lyrical and musical tirades against sexism, oppression, and abusers, and it makes for a glorious listen. Female empowerment, aftermaths of ugly breakups, and even a couple of genuine love songs appear on this album, and these subjects could not have been handled more powerfully or at a more fitting time. (Side note: The album’s title came from a quote by Gillian Anderson’s character in the British-Irish crime series The Fall. It’s uttered during the investigation of a crime scene where a woman’s torture took place. Basically, Fiona Apple is a genius.) There honestly isn’t a single lyrical moment I don’t love, but I’ll try to narrow my coverage down to only a handful of tracks.
When it comes to viscerally fulfilling songs, “Under the Table” is arguably Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ finest example. Lyrically, the song illustrates Apple’s refusal to be silent after someone at a fancy dinner says something out of line; no matter how awkward the atmosphere gets, she is determined to call them out on it (which more people should be doing, to be perfectly honest). This results in one of the best hooks on the album, directed towards her significant other: “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.” Another recurring motif that only makes the song more gratifying: “I would beg to disagree / But begging disagrees with me.” It’s among the album’s best songs, which is not something that can be said lightly.
Though this was a rather tough decision to make, the album’s lyrical crown jewel in my opinion has to be the song “Newspaper.” It portrays Apple’s connection to a woman who is now in an abusive relationship with the same man who mistreated Apple in the past. One repeated verse in particular demands to be printed in full: “I, too, used to want him to be proud of me / And then I just wanted him to make amends / I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends / And it’s a shame because you and I didn’t get a witness / We’re the only ones who know / We were cursed the moment that he kissed us / From then on it was his big show.” These are, without a doubt, some of the weightiest and most compelling words Apple has ever written, which is saying a lot.
Nowhere does the album get more harrowing, though, than on “For Her.” Depicting an abusive, selfish, cheating, drug-addicted partner, the song goes through several jarring musical changes in its less than three minutes. The tension builds and builds until the album’s most horrific, jaw-dropping line is uttered: “Well good morning, good morning / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” The track then coasts out on unsettling vocal harmonies that feel like the sort-of-but-not-really-calm after the storm. It’s one of the album’s shortest offerings, but “For Her” still manages to reach almost Xiu Xiu levels of disturbing. If this song doesn’t send chills down your spine, there’s something wrong with you.
The album comes to a frenetic, atonal, and satisfying close with “On I Go.” Rife with jarring time signatures, arrangement switches, and vocals that are more talked than sung, the song relentlessly pummels the listener into submission with heavy percussive blasts, screeching guitars, and repetitive lyrics. Your heart rate and breathing are pretty much guaranteed to have sped up by the end of its mere three-minute runtime; it’s like Uncut Gems in song form. It’s an appropriately thrilling and disorienting finish to a thrilling and disorienting album, and it’s hands down the weirdest song Fiona Apple has ever recorded.
The nitpicks I have with this album are virtually nonexistent; I can literally count them on one hand. Could “Rack of His” have benefitted from not fading out the way it does? Sure. Could “Drumset,” though a great track, have been a little longer? Probably. Is there too much high-end frequency on the vocals for the first couple of tracks? Absolutely. But these problems are so few and so minor compared to all the thorough and consistent greatness here that they do nothing whatsoever to dull the impact of this incredible album; the score below still emphatically stands even when I factor these quibbles in.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is Fiona Apple’s best album yet, a stunning body of work that is destined to forever stand as the monument to her incredible talent as a singer, songwriter, producer, and performer. It feels like the type of album an artist’s entire career has been building towards, and it’s easily the strongest musical release I’ve heard in a while. Honestly, how many artists at this point in their career end up making their best material yet? Frankly, I’ll be very surprised if a better album gets released this year, because this thing is just amazing. I will close this review with a brief, simple statement that I cannot stress enough: Listen to this album.
Listen to Fetch the Bolt Cutters on Apple Music or Spotify below.