“On I go, not toward or away
Up until now it was day, next day
Up until now in a rush to prove
But now I only move to move…”
Have you ever had a deep-diving conversation with someone you’ve known for a while? A conversation that brings so many new things to light, that offers you so many new windows into this person’s mind and heart that you feel like you’re seeing them for the first time?
That’s the experience I had listening to Fiona Apple’s extraordinary new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Apple has been making great music for a long time – I saw her on the first Lilith Fair in 1997, a year after she issued her still-celebrated debut, Tidal. I’ve enjoyed all of her work. But nothing – not even 2012’s fantastic The Idler Wheel… album – prepared me for Bolt Cutters. It is the sound of a supernaturally talented artist finally taking control of every element of what she does, and finally feeling free enough to be exactly who she is.
The result is like meeting her again for the first time. This is a jaw-dropper of an album, so far-and-away the best thing I have heard in 2020 that it’s almost comical. Its spirit is summed up in the lines I quoted from the final track, “On I Go.” This is a record about liberation, about freeing yourself from the shackles that bind you, even and especially if those shackles are other people. Its title comes from a line spoken by Gillian Anderson’s character in The Fall, as her investigations lead her to a captive kidnapping victim. But it’s about escaping every abusive relationship, every bad situation, even every mental weight holding you down.
True to that theme, this record sounds liberated. Apple recorded it at home, with help from her bandmate Amy Aileen Wood, and you can tell she reveled in the complete freedom. The Idler Wheel was recorded similarly, with drummer Charley Drayton, but even that album sounds self-edited compared to this one. Fetch the Bolt Cutters presents us with an artist entirely unafraid to be herself on record. There’s a spontaneity to it, but also a sense that she’s in total control of every element of it. It sounds ramshackle but also perfectly realized.
Like Idler Wheel, this one is percussion-heavy, but in addition to your standard drums, Apple and her cohorts play chairs and silverware and other household objects. The percussion bed on the title track is intricately arranged, but it’s also clearly made by banging found objects. It supports a bass and an organ, and that’s all it needs. And then guest vocalist Cara Delevigne’s dogs start barking for a full minute and Apple leaves it in, and it works. The whole record sounds like that, like a complex patchwork carefully assembled from unplanned moments.
And I can’t adequately describe how joyfully free that sound is. This is a record that tackles some heavy subjects, from Apple’s own rape to the way men come between women and keep them from being allies, and you can feel how much work Apple has done to get to the point where she can write these songs, where she can process these topics musically. Somehow she has crafted a record that sounds like the process, that sounds like what it feels like to deal with trauma and see the light on the other side.
This is definitely an album hitting the women in my life a lot more deeply. Part of it is the particular issues she addresses. “Under the Table,” for example, is a very specific song – it’s about a dinner party Apple didn’t want to attend, and her refusal to be shushed instead of calling out another guest for saying something offensive. But its repeated mantra – “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up” – is basically “nevertheless, she persisted” in song form, a singalong anthem for every woman ever talked over in a meeting, or in a relationship. (The song begins and ends with another great one-liner: “I would beg to disagree but begging disagrees with me.”)
“Newspaper” broaches a topic I’ve never heard in song before. It’s a letter to an ex-boyfriend’s latest girlfriend, forging bonds of solidarity between them. “I watch him walk over, talk over you, be mean to you and it makes me feel close to you,” she sings. “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me to make sure we’ll never be friends.” It’s a chilling song – she yells herself hoarse on it – and there’s a sense of desperation to it. Whatever this man did to both of them, they are the only ones who know, and this song is one woman reaching out to the only other one who understands.
And a song like “For Her” hits even deeper. Arising in the wake of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last year, this piece details a friend’s slow realization of her own rape at the hands of a similarly powerful man. It’s a symphony in 2:44, from the intake of breath at the beginning (as if to say “here we go”) to the multiple drum-driven sections, culminating with the album’s bluntest and sharpest line: “Good morning, good morning, you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.”
It is impossible to hear that line – to hear the way Apple sings it, putting every ounce of the fury and pain and floodgate-opening relief inherent in that line into her explosive delivery – and not be affected by it. But “For Her” is not a weighty song. It’s not “Me and a Gun,” as much as I love the way time stops when that one plays. “For Her” rocks, from the rapid-fire vocals to the drums, as if celebrating the hard-won freedom to look one’s rapist in the eyes with clarity. It ends with a choir of layered Fionas singing “you were so high,” and it’s almost breathtaking in its beauty.
This is an angry record, but its genius is that, like the music itself, it is not just that one thing. Apple allows herself to be complex, to contain multitudes, to be fully human in a way we often do not allow our female artists to be. Bolt Cutters is angry, and sad, and joyful, and screamingly funny. (Seriously, this is the funniest record Apple has ever made. I dare you to listen to “Rack of His,” in which she pokes at boasting male musicians, and not crack up. “Under the Table” is funny. The claustrophobic love song “Cosmonauts” is funny. Yes, “For Her” is funny.)
And best of all, it is all of those things all at once.
So while it is steeped in pain, it is also hopeful and empathetic. This is an album about coming through dark experiences and growing from them, so where it is full of rage it is also full of kindness. Opener “I Want You to Love Me” is one of the most open and straightforward love songs Apple has ever written, which means it is also about death and about feeling invisible and being seen. But it’s gorgeous and warm-hearted. “Relay” juxtaposes a line she wrote at 15 – “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch” – with her more adult insights: “I see that you keep trying to bait me, and I’d love to get up in your face, but I know if I hate you for hating me I will have entered the endless race.”
And then there’s the monumental title track, which tumbles down Apple’s timeline from middle school (which the glorious “Shameika” also references) to her early career to her bad relationships. She dissects her own self-image, noting what she allowed others to do to her, but she also shows kindness to herself: “I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet, so all I could hear was the noise that people make when they don’t know shit, but I didn’t know that yet.” Even as the song culminates in a grand Kate Bush reference, Apple keeps the message clear: you are not trapped. You are not stuck, no matter what situation you are in. No matter what is holding you down. Know yourself, be kind to yourself, free yourself.
Fetch the bolt cutters. I’ve been in here too long.
This record is astonishing, and I could talk about it forever. Having heard it on repeat for several days now, I cannot help but think of it in relation to her previous work. Her catalog now feels to me like a series of steps away from her male collaborators, from record companies who didn’t understand her, from anything and everything that kept her from the driver’s seat. This feels like Fiona Apple becoming who she was always meant to be, both as a person and as an artist. It’s the sound of overcoming, of growing beyond, of rising up as a whole and beautiful human, unafraid to be everything she is.
It’s like seeing her for the first time. I’m immensely glad to have met Fiona Apple, finally, and I can’t wait to hear what she has to say next.
* * * * *
Of course this middling review doesn’t quite say everything I wanted to about this album. I’m still processing it and will be for some time. I want to thank the various women I spoke to about this record, especially Erin Kennedy and Andrea Munday, who shared extensive thoughts on it.
If you want to read Apple’s own words about each song – and I highly recommend you do – check out this enlightening article. (Thanks again to Erin for the link.)
Next week I will still be listening to this, so I have no idea what I will be writing about. Let’s learn together.
See you in line Tuesday morning.