It feels like fate that Fiona Apple should release her first record in eight years while the world’s on lockdown. “I worry a lot about what it’s gonna be like when I actually have to put out an album and go out there,” the reclusive artist told Vulture late last year. Now that not leaving your house is a legal requirement, she doesn’t have to. She can drop her record into our lives and back away – staying a safe distance from the music world “bulls***” she so famously decried two decades ago.
Apple’s fifth album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is about “women”, she says, and “not being afraid to speak”. She never has been. Since she broke out with her debut album Tidal in 1996 – swiftly rejecting the industry’s sleazy embrace in the form of a scathing speech at the MTV Video Music Awards – Apple has made music that’s as fierce and mighty as a branding iron on fresh, white linen. Her songs have the sinister drama of a Sondheim musical, the technique of a classical symphony played backwards, and the titanic power of a pop song.
Named after a line uttered by Gillian Anderson in the BBC drama The Fall, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is no different. Manic descants, discordant pianos and abrupt changes in time signature at once complement and compete with each other in a carefully crafted clatter. The melodies are wonderful. The lyrics, too – conversational yet precise. “All the VIPs and PYTs and wannabes, afraid of not being your friend,” she sings – scats almost – on the title track. “And I’ve always been too smart for that, but you know what? My heart was not.” On “Ladies”, where she repeats that title until the word becomes just a sound, she recalls the origins of an ill-fitting dress with a peculiar mix of wit and sorrow.
If Apple didn’t insist that she’s “not online”, parts of “Relay” might sound like a riposte to smug Instagram couples. “I resent you for having each other/ I resent you for being so sure,” she rails, over carnival-like percussion. “I resent you presenting your life like a f***ing propaganda brochure.” Listen harder, though, and the song seems to allude to the self-perpetuating cycle of abuse: “Evil is a relay sport/ When the one who’s burnt on/ Turns to pass the torch.” She recruited her sister as backing singer for “Newspaper”, a song whose jaunty edge both belies and elevates the subject matter – two women who’ve been abused by the same man.
This is an album laced with defiance. Perhaps never more so than on “Under the Table”, on which she warns, “Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you push me”. “Kick me under the table all you want,” she smirks on the refrain. “I won’t shut up.” Good.
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