“All my particles disband and disperse/And I’ll be back in the pulse.”
Music, to Fiona Apple, seems like a Schrodinger’s Cat kind of paradox; it relies on the prospect of her own destruction, containing with it the danger that by peering in, the listener is fundamentally altering the experience. It is a blur of probability, every moment encapsulating gain and loss, life and death.
Moreover, its existence is threateningly self-justifying, as she states on the opening track of her latest record: “I know a sound is still a sound around no one”.
The title of her latest record offers an interesting antecedent to this idea. “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long” she asks despondently on the title track, and by performing this task it becomes clear that only on opening the box do we see a single definite state.
Over the course of her twenty-five-year career, it is unclear when Fiona Apple transformed from the husky babysitter of classic hits ‘Criminal’ and ‘Shadowboxer’, into the enigmatic auteur of albums such as When the Pawn and The Idler Wheel(…). However, her latest record manages to encapsulate all that allowed her to morph from mainstream darling into cult favourite. Fetch the Bolt Cutters manages to be her most blistering and defiant statement yet.
Apple delivers an updated take on her classic dense piano rock sensibilities, keying into the sparse, raw, and poetic sensibilities of protest music, laced with the hypnotic triumph of old Jazz standards. The unhurried artist’s first album in eight years manages to be an intimate yet enthused affair.
‘I Want You to Love Me’ is a fantastic opener, as Apple bellows over contrary motion scales, detailing the viscosity of unrequited love. Towards the middle section the track is shifted on its head, as Apple incorporates gun-shot drum kicks and frantic bowing on a double bass, whilst her sustained vocal melodies evoke the raspy fumbling of blowing up of a balloon.
The crisp andante of the opener is followed by the bluesy flurry of ‘Shameika’, one of the more upbeat songs on the track-list. It runs along unperturbed, relaying a story from Apple’s childhood days. The combination of the floundering bass piano notes and the gargled noise layers peppered throughout the track create a sense of winding terror. Album closer ‘On I Go’ delivers a similarly striking tone, a menacing concoction of percussive slams, demented chants, and spiralling guitar tones. The spliced vocals that spool in between the cracks of the creaking bass tones exhibit Apple at her most experimental.
Instrumentally, the album rolls between Apple’s common litany of chants and handclaps, and more daring timbral variation. The disquieting burlesque of ‘Newspaper’, the hop-scotch rhythms of ‘For Her’, and the dusty clatter of ‘Heavy Balloon’ are all moments of breath-taking hardihood. The light tumble of the plucked orchestra on ‘Rack of His’ further accentuates Apple’s outstanding instrumental choices.
The possible influences that could be attributed to this record feel pale and under the thumb, whilst still remaining surface enough to push her tense idiosyncrasies in new sonic directions; Apple will take your Pet Sounds and your Astral Weeks and raise you one higher. The works of Tom Waits, Kate Bush and Gil Scott-Heron are all slowly submerged in the rising tide of the record.
Indeed, one of its best qualities is how it takes the established form and rigour of blues and Jazz music, and creates a topsy-turvy, upended hybrid of sound. Apple locates the originality inherent in tradition and uses this to jolt its looser moments of experimentation into place.
This unwavering rigidity is further unpacked in Apple’s wit, providing some of her most biting lyrical work yet. This acts as a counterbalance to the moments of rage and venom, as Apple works through real emotional trauma. The jumble of stress fractures, emotional wounds, and contusions are all felt in Apple’s hearty poetics. On tracks like ‘Under the Table’ it is made clear that this is a female voice that will not be silenced.
Aside from on ‘Shameika’, there are a lack of pronouns here, and Apple is left to wage war on the ‘he’s’, and the ‘hims’ of the world, the lack of specificity amplifying her cries. In some ways there is no need for detail, as the economy of Apple’s imagery works wonders. On ‘Rack of His’, the embedded references to “Rockettes” and “Fillies” provide a seething comment on the male gaze in two words. ‘For Her’ provides some of the most scathing social commentary on the entire album, all pointing towards a moment of catharsis and defiance in its final line. On ‘Ladies’, Apple takes a more formalist approach to lyricism, and slowly spills over from the anecdotal into the aphoristic. It functions as a hymn to “good women like you”, whilst also lamenting how unreachable female companionship can feel in times of crisis: “yet another woman to whom I won’t get through”.
In many ways, Fetch the Bolt Cutters flirts unknowingly with the current Zeitgeist, exploring issues of entrapment, confinement and isolation. The album was recorded entirely in and with her Venice Beach Home, utilising a makeshift orchestra of kitchen implements and foot stomps to deliver a DIY aesthetic.
This is music rooted in its surroundings, and the quarantine has no doubt accentuated certain aspects of its musical blueprint. As Apple’s trademark alto locks in with the howls and yelps of her five dogs on the title track, amidst the crunches and jangles of homemade appliances you can feel the twisted matte of the carpet, the ripe hum of the plugs, the clenching stains on the coffee table. Apple constructs a symphony of the domestic realm, taking cues from the worlds of field recordings and music concrète. The detail is astonishing, and Apple’s artful approach only makes the material stronger.
Fiona Apple astonishes on her fifth full-length outing, a record that will likely be talked about for years. She weaves a rich musical tapestry of sounds and images. What is patently clear from this record is how intuitive Apple’s music can feel; in the same way as it works itself beneath your skin, Apple herself works from the ground up, raising rhythm from every sonic crack and gulf. It is perhaps through this vertical movement that Apple manages to escape her confines and float forever upwards. This reminds the listener that Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a work with the refined knowledge of the escape artist, the wire-walker, the trapeze artist: that winning elixir of muscle memory and self-knowledge. You can’t knock her off-balance. “Kick me under the table all you want,” she says, “I won’t shut up.”