Fiona Apple is a longtime practitioner of social distancing. For nearly two decades, she has seldom left her home in Venice Beach, except to walk her dog, Mercy. She has no social media. She tends to avoid the press, and she rarely listens to new music, owing to some combination of disinterest and an aversion to being influenced. These qualities lend her work a kind of feral authenticity, with no trend lines to be traced between its emotional eruptions and the music of her peers. Even when her songs are deeply personal, the artist herself can seem slippery, out of sight. When Apple releases an album, as she has once or twice per decade since the late nineties, she doesn’t so much reëmerge as peek through the blinds of her life.
On the title track of her new record, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” Apple offers an eerie mantra for a time in which her listeners have begun to feel like caged animals: “Fetch the bolt cutters,” she sings. “I’ve been in here too long.” In the song’s final moments, Apple’s voice deteriorates into whispers and gasps, and the music is overtaken by the sound of dogs barking anxiously, as if something deeply upsetting has come to their attention. On a song called “Heavy Balloon”—which has unexpected key changes and the shaggy, reverberational energy of a one-take live recording—she uses nonperishable food items as metaphorical grist: “I climb like peas and beans,” she sings. “I’ve been sucking it in so long that I’m busting at the seams.” Apple has never downloaded Instagram, but she’s managed to supply a fresh songbook of caption inspiration.
hg0088Over time, confinement has made Apple exceptionally resourceful. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is the culmination of a long and steady rejection of formal recording processes, wherein conventional instrumentation and studio arrangements have been replaced by an at-home tool kit of gadgets, gizmos, and B-roll audio recordings made on an iPhone or with GarageBand. Besides the dogs barking, the album contains a scrap yard’s worth of strange drumming surfaces: a metal butterfly, a loose stovetop Apple found on the side of the road, wooden blocks, an assortment of bells and shakers, oil cans. Apple is a classically trained pianist who, in her early days, took songwriting cues from Ella Fitzgerald. She wrote ballads and smoldering pop songs that could be performed behind a piano, on a big stage, or played over café speakers. But as she has grown in age—she’s now forty-two—she has moved toward a rawer, makeshift sound that shares more DNA with hymns and spirituals than with pop or jazz. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is less of an album than a collection of vocal and rhythmic spasms that have fermented into deeply challenging but satisfying songs, each imbued with an intense, almost overwhelming physicality.
hg0088And yet, because of Apple’s ear, acumen, and precise vocal enunciation, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” also has a perverse musicality. The chants and interjections at the heart of these songs have the effect of choruses, even when they’re not designed as such. They get lodged in the gut or the chest. There are shades of improvisational jazz, of Delta blues, of rap-battle taunts and nursery rhymes, but the album’s genre is hard to place. This is the aspiration of most artists—to cultivate a sound that defies categorization. But those same artists, feasting on a buffet of influences online, tend to achieve this effect through maximalism, folding in the styles they’ve absorbed until their music takes on a mushy, anonymous quality. Apple, instead, builds her sound from the ground up, drawing strictly from her own experience and from the physical tools in her midst.
hg0088“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is a ferociously individual work, but it’s also one that suggests Apple is more connected to the Zeitgeist than she has been in the past. Apple has a poet’s affection for words, and for combining them in sticky and evocative ways. No one is better at blurring the line between figurative and literal expression, and in the new songs she harnesses the themes and intensity of today’s political climate. On “Relay,” she lists the things she’s been holding against some unknown opponent:
These words fit neatly into the Apple catalogue, which is filled with hyper-articulate, introspective screeds about ex-boyfriends. But the song also contains a more generalized commentary on the very nature of hatred and the need to curtail the cycle of opposition. “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch,” she sings in the upbeat, singsong tone of someone reading a fable to children. Apple, who’s always spoken openly about enduring sexual violence in her teens, has said in interviews that the song was inspired partly by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearinghg0088, in 2018. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is often about the shared experiences of women, rather than about the specific anguish of a failed relationship. One song, “Newspaper,” is about the desire to forge a friendship with an ex’s new girlfriend; another is about a childhood classmate named Shameika, who said that Apple “had potential.” Many of the vocal arrangements—some bits are sung in rounds, with Apple’s voice layered over itself to mimic the sound of a chorus—even have the communal spirit of an all-female pep rally.
But lest one think Apple has succumbed to the clichéd language of empowerment and sisterhood, she is there to fill in the icky backstories and the agonizing fallout of female relationships, too. “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies,” she utters at the beginning of one song, by the same name, as if at a lectern. Here, she’s speaking again to the women involved with her past loves. It could be a cheerful song about solidarity, but there’s an undercurrent of resignation. “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through,” Apple sings in a half-sigh.
hg0088It’s been nearly eight years since Apple released “The Idler Wheel . . . ,” a record that transformed her from a nineties alt-pop icon into a messianic figurehead. In those years, the success of popular music has come to rely almost entirely on the strategy of brand development. In a flooded marketplace, artists must carefully frame themselves and carefully consider what will make the biggest splash, and when. Apple can seem revolutionary for resisting these forces, though I’m not quite sure that she’s plugged in enough to be aware of them. More than a defiant recluse, she is someone who understands that exceptional art requires exceptional experience. It requires new relationships to be forged, to simmer and evolve, to be destroyed on their own terms, and then to be processed. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is an invigorating document of energy, innovation, spontaneity, catharsis. These are things we’ve come to expect from Apple. But there is one thing that she deserves more credit for, as she toiled in her home, for years, accumulating the material to make these songs: her patience.