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Fiona Apple – Fetch The Boltcutters Review

April 21, 2020 | Posted by David Hayter
Fiona Apple - Fetch the Boltcutters
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Fiona Apple – Fetch The Boltcutters Review  

Fiona Apple has successful escaped the gravitational pull of the music industry she was once at the very heart of. Like a barely glimpsed moon in a distant decaying orbit, Apple only sporadic floats into view, appearing on a schedule entirely of her own making. In 2020 the “Criminal” star feels like the American heir to Kate Bush, an artist she explicitly references on her stunning new album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Apple was never half star in America that Bush was in her native UK, but both artists migrated from the hit making iconoclasm of their teens toward an esoteric, awkward, but undeniably brilliant second act. Both artists have a flair for being wilfully obtuse. Their album titles and concepts alone are enough to scare off casual listeners, be it the surreal 50 Words For Snow or the breathe sapping absurdity of (get ready for it) The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And The Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do.

Despite their strangeness and outsider artifice, both Bush and Apple arrived at a point in their careers where they could make anti-commercial moves knowing that their audience (and a host of intrigued newcomers) would go along with them. This level of autonomy is hard earned (particularly for young female popstars) and no doubt requires incredible financial sacrifice, but the result is an unrivalled freedom – not just from promotional schedules and editorial interference, but structure, form and genre itself. It’s fitting then that Apple turns to Bush for inspiration on the title track of their first studio album in eight long years.

“I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill, shoes that were not made for running up that hill/And I need to run up that hill”.  It’s a beautiful inversion of Bush’s classic feminist-pop anthem where she asks God to switch her and husband’s places so they could better empathize with one another and he could feel what it is like to be constantly running uphill in society. Apple isn’t looking for comparison, compassion or divine assistance; she is being crushed from the inside out and is desperate for escape. In a crafty double metaphor, societal expectations and her own neurosis have forced her to fill a grotesquely ill-fititng pair of shoes (her own self image,) and, of course, she is expected to literally run up that hill in high heels. Apple rejects both Bush’s approach (“I was furious, but I couldn’t show you”) and outright rebellion (“I don’t want a war with you…you get sore, even when you win”), instead she wants to break, shatter and escape the paradigm: “Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long”.

With a crooked smile and a mad look in her eye, Apple makes her break toward freedom. In the past a track fuelled by such repression would be delivered in the form of a dark, depressive and sardonic piano ballad. On Fetch The Bolt Cutters, however, Apple’s music is imbued with a wonderful sense of looseness. The percussions rattles and thumps organically, her voice has a playful lilt and, while her keys certainly hang at odd angles, the effect is less creepy and more akin to a predator toying with her prey. The result is an elegant and energized rumble of ever-shifting rhythm that sets the scene as Apple delves into the suffocating misery of her past, to examine the woman she once was: a victim of society, other people’s opinions and a societal mould she could never hope to fit.

Comparing the way I was to the way she was/Sayin’ I’m not stylish enough and I cry too much/And I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet”.

Therein lies the source of both tension and dynamism on what quickly becomes Fiona Apple’s career redefining masterwork: the idea of a woman unbound artistically looking back on her repressed, anxious, unsure and fundamentally un-free former self. Rage and wisdom pour forth as knives are twisted by this avenging angel of liberated artistry.

In this light, Fetch The Bolt Cutters is less defined by a collection of brilliant songs (though there are plenty of those) and more by these wild and poetic narrative shifts. Flashes of insight and reflection sit side-by-side with moments of sheer blunt force brutality. “For Her” offers one of the album’s most stunning swerves. The track bubbles and bounces with a cheerleader-like strut between a series of syncopated chant-cum-verses. It’s unbelievably addictive and danceable in a crooked and perverse fashion, but if the verse which details a series of sexual humiliations endured in the name of going along to get along is shocking (“She’s tired of planting her knees on the cold, hard floor of facts, trying to act like the other girl acts”), then the final twist is utterly devastating. The last in a series of stark tonal and temporal shifts takes place. Apple slows things down and sings “good morning” with a sunny disposition that knowingly recalls “Singing In The Rain” before dropping her bombshell: “you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”.

A pattern soon emerges. Apple might shift tones and dismantle structures at will  (as if she were trying to embody the spirits of Merrill Garbus, PJ Harvey and Jack White simultaneously), but she keeps the listener on the edge of their seats with these wonderful rhythmic and lyrical passages. It’s impossible to predict exactly where she’ll go and, even after multiple listens, the album’s most poignant passages still manage to sneak up and stun. Album opener, “I Want You To Love Me” proves particular devastating.  Waltzing around a piano line that is both playful and crooked, Apple seemingly weaves her words in on herself as she sings serenely of both her own individual autonomy and her need to be loved. These seemingly contradictory impulses are tied together in one devastating flourish: “And I know none of this will matter in the long run, but I know a sound is still a sound with no one around/And while I’m in this body, I want somebody to want/And I want what I want and I want…you to love me”. In one seamless transition Apple slips from staggered trembling uncertainty into the purity and beauty of a torch song chorus.

“I Want You To Love Me” may provide the most beautiful of shifting sands, but the rest of Fetch The Bolt Cutters is not to be outdone. The album is littered with these wonderfully warped storytelling passages that blend evocatively unhinged imagery with kitchen sink details. “Shamieka” is yet another masterstroke. The track clatters and clangs by blending the sound of pots and pans with a gorgeous creeping bass line and the kind of off-kilter piano thuds last heard on The White Stripes’ Get Behind Me Satan. Against this groovy, but alienating backdrop, Apple tells the tale of being bullied at school and struggling to assert her identity. Yet bizarrely, it’s a bully, and not the words of her friends, that gives Apple the strength to endure. One throw away comment from a popular girl at school was all Apple had to cling onto, but cling she did: “Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend…Shameika said I had potential”.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters is already causing a sensation for its compositional daring. Its proudly homemade percussion, its stark shifts in tone and rhythm, the use of Apple’s dogs as backing vocalists and its rejection and knowing inversion of typical pop forms are all worthy of praise, but the album’s secret weapon is something far simple and more conventional: double-tracking. Apple is perpetually haunted by (and dueting with) her own contorted vocal. Phrases are echoed and inverted, drawing out alternate meanings and confounding expectation. So much humor, anger and energy is injected by the mere interplay between Apple and her own voice. This might be one of the oldest tricks in the book, but it’s perfect for an album defined by the splintered self and the quest to reconcile who you were, with what has happened, who you are now and what will become of you.

In another world, in another year, these same songs could be performed in a dark oxygenless void. Apple could sit at her piano drawing out the agony of each and every syllable as she stares directly into the listener’s eyes. After all, that’s what she would have done on The Idler Wheel… Instead, Apple has embraced momentum and airiness. On paper this might threaten to undermine the severity of her lyrics, instead this embrace of tenderness, groove and sexuality brings Fetch The Bold Cutters’ humanity to the fore. The pain and misery could rip through to the surface or be left hiding behind a well-maintained facade.

The result is songs that appear sweet, but possess a heaviness of soul. “Cosmonauts” feels like the most delicate and beautiful pop single Apple has released in decades, but it is really a rumination on the impossibility of monogamy. From slow brewing resentment (“your face ignites a fuse to my patience, whatever you do, it’s going to be wrong”) to having to endure a litany of potentially deadly missteps that only foster resentment (“you and I will be like a couple of cosmonauts, except with way more gravity than we started off”). Unsurprisingly, as the track drifts towards its conclusion Apple is both brutally howling and softly cooing the tracks refrain. Is she denying reality or embracing it? The joy lies in the confusion itself.

This idea of containing her most abject resentment and most righteous anger behind a thinly maintained veil persists throughout. On the superb “Rack Of His” Apple resignedly sings of a man she is head over heels in love with, even though he uses her and other women like objects (like a rack of guitars hanging on his wall). The conclusion of the track is unsettling to say the least, Apple doesn’t break the spell, instead she learns to use herself like a tool to fill the time (“I try to drum, I try to write, I can’t do either well/but oh well, that’s fine, I guess, cause I know how to spend my time”). “Newspaper” feels like a creepy and saintly haunted answer to Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”. Apple is the former lover, watching from afar as another woman falls for her ex. Overcome with a blend of empathy, jealous and agony, Apple begins to live vicariously and protectively through this new woman who she has no ability to forewarn: “when I learned what he did, I felt close to you, in my own way, I feel in love with you, but he’s made a ghost of you”.

There’s so much poison and poignancy to be found on Fetch The Bolt Cutters that it’s easy to become mired in the details of either the narrative or the compositions. Without doubt, it is worth delving into the complexities of such a compelling and deeply layered LP, but it is also worth standing back and taking the long view. There is no two ways about it, Fiona Apple has delivered a virtuoso performance, not as a technical vocalist, but as a star. She can seethe like Nick Cave and sooth like the finest late night lounge singer, but the joy of Apple’s performance lies in her seamless shifts from one extreme to the other (and any one of a million points in between). It is a genuine pleasure, even amongst the psyche-scraping-darkness, to follow Apple’s performance from a simple sentence’s starting syllable to its unpredictable conclusion. She might offer a lovely stream of consciousness diversion (“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”) or a surreal bluesy scream of self-assertion (“I spread like strawberries, I climb like peas and beans, I’ve been sucking it in so long, that I’m bursting at the seams”). In other words, it’s the journey not destination. This is live action processing: Apple is likely as surprised where her subconscious takes her as we are.

Fittingly, Fetch The Bolt Cutters ends with an understated anthem of endurance and continuance. “On I Go” is a statement of belief, a simple chant Apple used to endure a night in jail following her arrest for drug possession. The point, however, is larger and more satisfying. Whatever indignities she may have to suffer and no matter what mess she gets herself into, one fact remains: she will “go on”.

The path ahead may be circuitous, it might dissolve and rearrange in front her very eyes; she may find her self screaming, crying, laughing or wearing a crooked smile, but she will endure, evolve and move forward. After all, a long long time ago Shamieka said she had potential and, while Apple might still struggle with the demons of her past (and society at large), she has fulfilled that potential and then some. Apple has long since freed herself, she now stands at the precipice, arms outstretched, offering her trusty bolt cutters for any woman brave (or desperate) enough to reach out for them.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
After eight long years Fiona Apple returns with Fetch The Boltcutters, a wickedly rhythmic and crooked rumble through a tortured psyche. Overcoming a lonesome childhood and the indignity and humiliations of early adulthood, Apple has discovered a sense of identity at long last. She might be driven to distraction and back again, but Apple has attained a unprecedented level of artistic and personal freedom that is reflected on this collection of wild, narratively rich, shockingly brutal and yet undeniably lyrical psychodramas masquerading as pop songs.

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Fiona Apple, David Hayter