By James Lanik
In 1997, Fiona Apple famously took the stage at the VMAs to accept her award for Best New Artist and simultaneously call out the world as bulls**t. If any moment in time best illustrated her place in the pop music landscape, it’s this one. She has spent every moment in the limelight since then subverting the expectations of people around her hoping to be able to find ways to monetize the next great Norah Jones or Alanis Morissette.
Where most arthouse singer songwriters eventually find critical success and sacrifice depth for commercial viability, Apple has seemingly run the gauntlet in backwards order, and rejected the notion of pop stardom completely ever since her ninety word long album, When The Pawn…. Her further reclusion into a private lifestyle closely correlated with the intimacy of her songwriting over the years.
Her last album, 2012’s The Idler Wheel…, stripped back the instrumentation to its most stark and barebones form and let her lyrical acrobatics take center stage unchallenged in an impressive display of restraint. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is the antithesis to that album.
All the familiar tropes of Fiona Apple’s music are on display here, but rather than be meticulously reworked in Pro Tools, she lets the space of her Venice Beach household shape and mold the sounds of the countless instruments she filled her living space with. The choice of recording venue here is just as important as the instruments itself. Fiona utilizes every percussive household instrument to create a cacophonous whirlwind of clashes and clangs to encompass her storytelling.
By the time the fifth track, “Relay” (a marching chant about the ongoing cycle of bullying and hurt), reaches its dizzying final stretch, her MO is made abundantly made clear, because Apple lets her voice stop doing the storytelling and lets the pots and pans do it instead. You don’t need to break out the Genius lyric sheet to understand the crescendo of tribal hums and drums at the end is illustrating her “passing the torch” in the endless relay sport of evil. An indignant “I’m sorry” is the last words we hear from her before she leaves us to watch the bittersweet ceremony.
The mark of an incredible storyteller isn’t how many obtuse and obscure ways you can layer your stories under a thousand different big words. In her case, it’s the ability to balance the clarity of songwriting with clever and meaningful double entendres, while also knowing when to let the inanimate objects convey your frustration instead. There’s never been “bedroom music” that has sounded like this.
Make no mistake though, this is a Fiona Apple record, and her lyrics are the star of the show. Fetch the Bolt Cutters tells a story, but it doesn’t feel the need to tell it chronologically. It jumps from anecdote to anecdote without missing a beat, and ties up story arcs several tracks down the line.
The aforementioned track “Relay” wouldn’t have it’s poignance without “Shameika,” an allegory about a girl she met in grade school whom she wasn’t close with, but told her “she had potential” at a time in her life when everyone saw her as too weird and awkward to be friends with. That’s something many people relate with, but it’s the way that she illustrates the mundane, everyday habits of school that hit home most, like watching the second hand on a clock tick away endlessly (“The second hand went by, a group of five, done, twelve times was a minute”), or the way that she eventually internalizes her classmates’ characterizations of her (“Sebastian said I’m a good man in a storm,” versus eventually saying herself that she’s a good man in a storm).
The indictments grow more serious as the album progresses. On “Newspaper,” Fiona speaks directly to a woman who had been abused by the same man who had abused her, and the nonexistent repercussions that he faced for his actions. Fiona has faced many demons in her life, not the least of which being sexually abused at age 12.
It’s cathartic to watch her exorcise these demons from the mountaintop as her voice cracks and warbles, yelling “you’re wearing time like a flowery crown.” But it’s also heartbreaking to know that her experiences are something she will carry with her without retribution, as she next proclaims she’s “alone on the summit now, trying to not let her light go out”.
I could break down more tracks further, but to do so without hearing the album yourself would be spoiling an incredible music project. In the midst of all the noise and stories, Apple continues to find ways to string together her quotable stanzas in inventive ways. Her poetry would be impressive on paper alone, but the way she manages to deliver lines at breakneck syncopated pace in one verse and then linger on every syllable in the very next one is nothing short of incredible, especially since she sought very little outside help in the creation of this album.
Everything about it, from the DIY album art, to the use of her home as an instrument itself, furthers its autobiographical thesis. And it couldn’t have come at a better time too. Her album was brought into a world sequestered in their homes for months on end, growing more restless by the day. But Fiona has been self-quarantining before it was cool, so it’s safe to say she knows what she’s doing.
In the midst of her 8 year long hiatus, she retreated into solitude, taking as much time as she needed to reach a point at which she was ready to scream at the heavens to proclaim that while the world may be bulls**t, she’s not gonna sit back and take it. In a world where everyone is now living the same lifestyle she chose for herself the past few years, we could really take a page out of her book and take the time to self examine who we really want to be when the world opens its doors again. Go ahead and fetch the bolt cutters. “We’ve been in here too long.”
Featured image via Fiona Apple.