Bursting onto the scene in the mid 90s, where a wave of alt-based piano songstresses bum-rushed the charts, Fiona Apple, at the time only 19, immediately blew the trend wide open, from Alanis to Amos, with Tidal. Rich with a lush production style, seedy jazz influences (as seen on iconic single Criminal) and refreshingly-mature songwriting, Apple has since been one of the music industries most anticipated, and elusive, artists.
Blessing the years since with a sporadic littering of instrumentally-dense, sometimes titularly-abridged and always jaw-dropping records, 2020 sees the release of Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Apple’s fifth studio album and first since 2012’s highly-acclaimed The Idler Wheel… (etc. etc. e t c .). At this point in time, Bolt Cutters is unanimously adored by everyone who’s laid their ears on it, so expectations are undoubtedly high.
The album kicks off with the whirling, Carroll-esque pianos of I Want You To Love Me. Through the course of her career, Apple has had a very volatile lyrical relationship with love, so to hear her deliver this, at least chorus-wise, yearning for it is very refreshing. However, the album’s darker aspects are forecasted by Apple’s increasingly frenzied playing and *unconventional* vocal trilling that closes the track.
What’s immediately apparent about the album from this track, especially the “Bang it, bite it, bruise it” vocal line in the bridge, is the percussive subtext that surrounds every sonic component. Everything from Fiona’s voice to her piano playing to the production to even the lyrics, is moulded to these harsh rhythms that seem like they’re embodying the themes of the album. In a past, A-level-oriented life, I would know the technical word for that. Oh well.
This frenzied, arpeggiated piano leads directly into the following track Shameika. Apple’s whimsical melodies, as they often do, contrast her sardonic vocal cadence, even in her dreamier vocal passages. The backing vocals also add this ethereal quality during the song’s more calmer moments. Fiona’s playing throughout is whirlwind and virtuosic, and her relationship with the instrument across the album is proof (if needed) that, at this point, Apple is as credible a “piano man” as Elton John or Billy Joel. If that wasn’t enough, Shameika is also one of the brightest lyrical spots on an album full of them, with “I didn’t smile because a smile always seemed rehearsed/I wasn’t afraid of the bullies and that just made the bullies worse” having that scrappy brightness to it that makes Apple magnetic to listen to.
Even though she’s been known for her excellent grasp of language and lyricism since her debut, Fetch the Bolt Cutters still feels like a poetic unearthing for Apple. Gems like the one above and, of course, the genius “I would beg to disagree but begging disagrees with me” line from Under The Table, showcase the singer as a deft lyricist, essentially unmatched by any of her peers. The secret seems to be her ability to be dizzyingly clever, yet remain charismatic and likeable. This lends her voice, in the album’s more confrontational moments, to have an even stronger potency.
As the album continues, we have the eponymous Fetch the Bolt Cutters, with its buoyant double-bass that permeates through the skeletal instrumentation of the album. Under the Table, as well as including the aforementioned best line of the year so far, has a relatable and empowering lyrical theme of defying the potential pressures and social suppressions that can be put onto you by a loved one, backed by one of the more layered instrumentals on the record.
A big, defining sound of the album is the consistently unconventional percussion. While the bass plays more of a melodic role, and though Fiona’s piano is a rhythmic instrument in itself, the pots-n-pans approach is one of the more off-beat aspects of Bolt Cutters. While its often charming and adds to DIY aesthetic, there are definitely some tracks that would benefit from a fuller sounding drum part. For example, songs like Heavy Balloon and, ironically enough, Drumset, suffer from some of the more hollower-sounding mixes, which is only accentuated by some of the tinnier timbres in the percussion.
However, one big exception to this is Relay, one of the most sonically diverse, yet gratifying tracks on the whole album. Flittering between two distinct moods, the track features, in its “verse” part, this ascending bassline that feels both wracked with worry and, if given a funkier beat, like something that Tribe could be rapping over it. In the hookier part of the track, the production is rich with this rootsy grandiosity, with these chanting, layered backing vocals and pounding beat. It feels like some kind of war cry on Apple’s part.
Relay is also a great example of how, on Bolt Cutters, Fiona continues to shun conventional song structures, often to inspired ends. The overlapping of bridges, hooks and breakdowns on a song like For Her contributes greatly to ‘organised chaos’ vibe to the album. Its tangled composition is definitely part of the appeal, as it adds that engagement when listening to it.
Carrying on the nigh-on golden streak that album has started off with, Rack of His, with its eerie, woodwind-based instrumental, is one of the most jittery moments on the tracklist. Fiona’s vocals here have the same jazz-singer-on-a-bender tendencies that you’d find in Tom Waits, while the booming snares and rattling, kitchen-sink percussion has this world music feel, doubtlessly stemming from the Patagonian-sounding melodies.
Newspaper opens with this building hook, one that showcases Fiona’s knack for vocal rhythms, that establishes the song’s themes of female alliance in the face of male manipulation. The repetition of this hook, structured by the increasingly-enveloping rhythmic parts and circling backing vocals, only adds to its chilling power. In this track more than any other, the influence of Patti Smith could not be more apparent, with the vocals being delivered in a similarly militant, authoritative way.
As the album enters its back half, some of the songs do begin to get lost in the album’s more eccentric habits, however. Heavy Balloon has a gruffness to its delivery that’s again reminiscent of Waits, with a solid lyrical concept that’s somewhat let down by the underwhelming “strawberries/peas and beans” hook — seems kind of tenuous. Moreover, the aforementioned Drumset lacks anything that allows it to distinguish itself between the loudness of For Her and the closing track.
Opening on a deceivingly peppy vocal melody, For Her sees Fiona at her most unforgiving. The offensive she engages in is fuelled by this bittersweet victory, peaking with the soberingly powerful line “Good morning, good morning/You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in“. There’s a rapid unpredictability in the track’s composition, with endlessly shifting tempos and sonic flavours. It makes for the most ear-grabbing tracks on the album.
That said, Fiona is nothing if not versatile on Bolt Cutters, which is apparent in the record’s tenderer moments, like the Elton-esque chord progressions of Ladies and the beautifully serene Cosmonauts. The former, continuing the themes of Newspaper, albeit in a far lighter tone, has a warming camaradarie to it. The latter has a near-constant state of urgency in the verse, making the weightless hook feel all the more peaceful.
Closing the album is On I Go, which interpolates a chant Apple sung to herself in prison. The repeated verses are exactly what you’d expect from that description, with the vague lyrics describing a kind of perpetual mobility, delivered with an infectious vigour. It’s an exciting note for the album to end on, as Fiona eventually stumbles over her lines while the tribal drums build in conjunction with this kind of post-punk dissonance. It allows Bolt Cutters the audacity to end on its own terms.
Overall, everything you’ve heard about Fetch the Bolt Cutters is true. Instrumentally diverse, lyrically ingenious and tonally grounded, this is Fiona Apple’s most accomplished, most ambitious and, ultimately, best album, in my opinion. Despite its not-unnoticeable iffy spots, there is such a virtuosic creativity on display here that you will be hooked from the first listen.
best tracks: Shameika, Newspaper, Cosmonauts, Rack of His, I Want You To Love Me