Despite how difficult the subject matter can be, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is substantially catchy, which makes it all the easier to end up in its thrall.
At the end of Extraordinary Machine, Fiona Apple’s third record, she delivers an ode to finding acceptance in being alone with yourself. “If you don’t have a date/ Celebrate/ Go out and sit on the lawn/ And do nothing,” she sings amid her own spritely and whimsical piano work. She’d return with The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Turning of the Screw, and Whipping Chords Will Serve You More Than Words Will Ever Do in 2012, an album marked by the space Apple left in each song. It felt like the work of someone getting used to accepting her lonerism, and can be boiled down to a single line: “How can I ask anyone to love me/ When all I do is beg to be left alone?”
The Idler Wheel struggled with its own loneliness, to the degree where it felt at times like Apple wasn’t cut out for a life of solitude. Many songs on it grapple with her complicated relationship with men, both the ones she wants to be around (“Jonathan”), and the ones that spew hot piss whenever they address her (“Regret”). The latter is one of the most furious songs in the canon, and even with the loving one-two punch of “Anything We Want” and “Hot Knife,” nobody could blame her for shutting people out. And so, she got comfortable with her life of quasi-reclusion, allowing in only the people she actively wanted to let in, and – most importantly – only making the music she wanted to make. Eight years later, we get Fetch the Bolt Cutters, an album birthed entirely at home.
And, frankly, it’s a masterpiece. It’s a masterpiece not just because the music itself is fantastic. We all knew it was going to be: Apple only seems capable of making music that pushes her own creative boundaries, resulting in a tremendous work. Eight years ago, The Idler Wheel seemed like we’d seen the best of her, stripped down to the essentials and distilled into one emotional, complicated slab. Fetch the Bolt Cutters sets that thinking ablaze, revealing far, far more of the artist than we’ve seen, which is impressive for someone who, when last we saw her, was gently declaring “I just want to feel everything.”
And here, she does feel everything. She experiences love, loneliness, fury, jealousy, heartbreak, and every other emotion in between. She begins by picking up where we left off, but while Idler Wheel closer “Hot Knife” positioned Apple as the butter to her lover’s hot knife, opener “I Want You To Love Me” places her desire to be loved within the framework of her own cosmic self-awareness: “I know when I go/ All my particles disband and disperse/ And I’ll be back in the pulse,” she sings matter-of-factly, before confessing “And while I’m in this body/ I want somebody to want/ And I want what I want and I want/ And I want you to love me.” Her voice seems shaky as she delivers these lines, but when she hits “you,” she holds onto it just a little longer than you’d expect she should, and does this every time she sings it, as though she’s trying to get used to whoever “you” might be.
This is arguably the only love song on Fetch, leaving every other song to tackle her more complicated relationships. On “Shameika,” she addresses a girl from middle school who swiftly helps her overcome her own feelings about the bullies around her. With “Newspaper,” she addresses a former lover’s current lover, and how his actions and treatments make her love and feel close to her – “It’s not what it’s supposed to do,” she confesses. “For Her” addresses the victims of predatory men in Hollywood and politics (here’s just one choice line: “Maybe she spent her formative years/ Dealing with his contentious fears/ And endless jeers at her endless tears”). The magnificent, howling “Heavy Balloon” doesn’t even address another person, but rather the dragon of depression: “People like us, we play with a heavy balloon/ We keep it up to keep the devil at bay, but it always falls way too soon.”
Every song sounds a little bit different, shifting at a moment’s notice to accommodate Apple and her piano. Unconventional percussion populates each song, sometimes sounding composed and polished, but sometimes (specifically on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters”) it just sounds like the banging of pots and pans. At times Apple’s piano playing fits nicely into the rhythm section (see: the piano stabs that accompany every “Shameika said I had potential”). The end result is that Fetch seems designed to move around to (perhaps an intentional antidote to Apple’s own reclusive tendencies), whether it’s the gentle sway of “Ladies,” the stomp-clap rhythms of “For Her” or the feverish energy of “Relay.” And her delivery, too, ends up feeling like just another piece of the band, a precision weapon that few have this kind of grace wielding. Marvel at the multilayered splendor of the word “ladies,” the gut-punch of “kick,” the woozy, rapid stabs of “fuckin’ propaganda brochure.” Few people are as adept at making an instrument out of the way they emote, and this is never clearer than on Fetch.
To attempt to catalog all of the exquisite lyrics here would be a fool’s errand. Each song is a treasure trove of quotables and potential affirmations, bruisers and tearjerkers. Sometimes she’s funny, like when she describes the necks of a rackful of guitars as “Lined up like eager fillies, outstretched like legs of Rockettes” and addresses them directly: “I thought you would wail on me like you wail on them, but it was just a coochie-coo-coup” And how about the way she lets the rambling sing-talk climax of “Ladies” tumble out of her mouth: “There’s a dress in the closet/ Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it/ I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine/ It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine/ She left it behind with a note, one line, it said/ ‘I don’t know if I’m coming across, but I’m really trying’/ She was very kind” – that stanza could be anyone else’s career-best, but here, it’s just one bright shimmer in a sky full of stars.
Of course, her fury is always the best. The standout “Under the Table” is a hysterical take on being forced to keep up appearances at a shitty dinner party where she barks “don’t you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you shush me” at her date, while the mesmerizing “Newspaper” explores romantic Stockholm Syndrome and miraculously does justice to the inner turmoil that comes with it. And good Lord, “For Her” exists in its own class, a brilliant takedown of predatory men inspired by the Brett Kavanaugh nomination hearings that includes this: “You arrive and drive by like a sauced up bat/ Like you know you should know, but you don’t know what you did/ Like you know, you should know what happened when I came to bed/ Well, good morning! Good morning!/ You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in!” It’s a shocking line, but it’s among the most uncompromising and powerful lines in her songbook.
Even though Fetch dances with perfection, it’s riddled with mistakes and “first thought, best thought” flaws other people would be too afraid to leave in – the most natural studio vérité possible. Those dogs barking on the title track? Those weren’t added in – it’s just Apple’s dogs (as well as Cara Delevingne’s dogs – you can catch Delevingne meowing in the first chorus) waiting until the end of the song to bark their heads off. Midway through closer “On I Go,” she misses a beat and just shouts “Ah, fuck, shit!” and groans in frustration before rejoining the fray on the next round. Absolutely none of the songs reach the musical resolution you expect them to find, and moments that wouldn’t fit if someone else made the song fit perfectly here. Take “Shameika,” which inexplicably starts with a schoolyard flashback sequence before shifting somewhere else entirely, with mind-melters like “Hurricane Gloria in excelsis deo/ That’s my bird in my tree/ My dog and my man and my music is my holy trinity,” returning to the titular Shameika in “Lost”-style flashbacks as a way of showing us how present-day Apple learned from the lessons of her childhood self. And how about how “Relay” begins as a feverish stomper, before shifting to bass-heavy funkiness, and then falls apart entirely before being reborn as a quiet, a capella jazz number?
Despite how difficult the subject matter can be, Fetch is substantially catchy, which makes it all the easier to end up in its thrall. Many songs have a hook that’ll have you singing along at the top of your lungs on your first listen. Try getting through the day post-listen without muttering “Shameika said I had potential” under your breath like a verbal tic, and “Under the Table”’s showstopping refrain – “Kick me under the table all you want/ I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up” – could easily have you googling the nearest operational tattoo parlor to carve it into your own flesh. Others trade their catchiness for killer vocal rhythms, like “Drumset” or the phenomenal “Newspaper,” which are delivered in a beautifully hypnotic way, with “Relay”’s declaration that “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch” which sounds like an incantation. Closer “On I Go” repeats the trick Idler Wheel used with the singalong-ready “Hot Knife,” but it changes the focus from how she exists in conjunction with someone else, and onto her own acceptance of unflinching trueness to self: “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.”
Already two weeks into its publicly-available existence, every critic under the sun has weighed in on their thoughts and feelings about Fetch the Bolt Cutters, to the point where any attempt to discuss its strengths already feels trite – which is impressive, considering just how many things within each song are worthy of discussion, to the point where every song really does merit its own essay. It may seem presumptuous to assume a brand new album is destined for that level of canonization, but let’s be clear: Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a triumph, one designed with emotional and creative fearlessness and made by someone with absolutely nothing to prove and the drive to make exactly what she wants to make. Don’t take my word for it: give it a listen. Let it seep into you and make you dance and sing along and celebrate the idea of being this unafraid to be complicated. Or, in Fiona’s words: “Blast the music! Bang it! Bite it! Bruise it!