It’s only April, but Fiona Apple may have already given us the lyric of the year: “Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long.” Fetch the Bolt Cutters is, in fact, the title of both the song where she murmurs the line as a refrain and her first album since 2012. Apple couldn’t have known when she quoted the line, first uttered by Gillian Anderson in the BBC crime drama The Fall, that she’d be releasing the record into a world on house arrest. But Apple has always been spookily prescient about the mood of the culture, magnifying her own internal landscape until it starts to look like a near-future map of the universe.
As a young artist in the late ’90s she wrote piercing songs about, among other things, her experiences with sexual assault and mental illness—topics mainstream pop culture mostly avoided until well into the 21st century. Critics praised her music but mocked her preternatural candor; in retrospect, you get the sense that the presence of such a talented, articulate, tortured brain in the head of a beautiful teenage girl threw them for a loop. Two decades later, Apple has outlasted her haters and now lives a tabloid-proof life in Venice Beach. For company, she has her dog, a roommate and the roommate’s dog. When a reporter asked her, last year, whether she’d seen the movie Hustlers—which includes a scene where Jennifer Lopez strips to Apple’s 1996 hit “Criminal”—she replied, “If I were a person who actually left my house, I’d go.”
It figures, doesn’t it, that Apple was voluntarily self-quarantining years before the rest of us were forced to? She even did much of the work on Bolt Cutters at home, where she cobbled together a studio and recorded with the help of GarageBand and a three-piece band of veteran musicians (bassist Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Amy Aileen Wood and singer-songwriter David Garza on guitar), with whom she shares production credits. According to a recent New Yorker profile, Apple laid the rhythmic foundation for the album by leading the ensemble around the house, where they chanted and banged on homemade percussion instruments. Comfortable though its author might be in semi-seclusion, the album arrives as a message in a bottle from one castaway to a sea full of them. You bet Fiona Apple knows what it’s like to be bouncing off the walls of your bedroom—and your skull—with too much time to second-guess every choice you’ve ever made. How lucky for listeners that her unsparing introspection possesses the alchemical power to make us feel less alone in ours.
Mountaintop sage is a role that suits her better than enfant terrible ever did. Now that the culture is catching up with her, Apple has evolved in the public imagination into a sort of folk hero—trolling powerful sexists, reaching out to other artists who struggle with mental health, donating two years’ worth of proceeds from “Criminal” to refugees. In a 2018 video, she responded to a fan’s question about whether she still believed the words she’d notoriously muttered during a photo shoot in the ’90s: “There’s no hope for women.” Apple patiently explained that she was a scared kid back then and that the music industry in particular had changed for the better in recent years. “We’re gonna be fine!” she exclaimed, shifting into encouraging-big-sister mode. “There’s always hope for women. We are hope.”
That’s not to say she’s gone full girl-power cheerleader. Bolt Cutters can be quite dark. In “For Her,” Apple executes a devastating variation on the standard “Good Morning” with nothing but sparse, hollow percussion as a net: “Well, good mornin’, good mornin’, you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” Like most of the album, it’s a song that calls attention to its own construction, transitioning from one sound to the next with minimal artifice. What begins as a clapping, stomping jump-rope rhyme becomes a rhythmic chant whose intonations fall at the intersection of rap and R&B, then stretches into something bluesier. Finally, the shocking “Good Morning” line gives way to a layered, angelic chorus that feels like a sonic representation of healing. The song reportedly originated from Apple’s anger over the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.
Her (mercifully non-literal) form of Trump-era rage coexists on the album with blunt dissections of her past, personality and public image. The incantatory refrain of “Relay”—“Evil is a relay sport, when the one who’s burned, turns to pass the torch”—makes for a timely indictment of our hate-poisoned political discourse but actually comes from one of Apple’s teenage notebooks. She vents her resentment at fakes, jerks, people who present their “life like a f—ing propaganda brochure.” (Never one to perform happiness she doesn’t truly feel, Apple is a conscientious objector to influencer culture.) Yet the song resolves with her finding the wisdom to break the relay’s chain: “I know if I hate you for hating me, I will have entered the endless race.”
Bolt Cutters takes a special interest in her relationships with women. Though she’s proven her feminist mettle over and over again, she has also taken more than her share of abuse from women—especially early in her career, when she was accused of giving girls eating disorders and allowing her 19-year-old self to be objectified in music videos. On “Ladies,” she repeats the title until its two syllables become meaningless, then slides into a lilting torch song for “good women, like you/Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.” Still, Apple admits that she can be weird with, say, her exes’ new girlfriends. Amid a gentle metallic clatter, the title track opens with a plaintive, charmingly clumsy admission: “I’ve been thinking about when I was trying to be your friend—I thought it was, then, but it wasn’t—it wasn’t genuine.” Perhaps because having compassion for women also means having compassion for herself, she affords herself the same respect: “Kick me under the table all you want/I won’t shut up,” goes the sing-along chorus to “Under the Table.”
The record’s conversational tone, manifested in Apple’s talky delivery as well as in lyrics that scan as prose more often than poetry, creates a rare intimacy. And it’s echoed in compositions defined by their rough edges: hand claps; a cappella passages; sudden shifts in tempo; vocals that alternate ragged whispers, attenuated moans and bracing falsetto with her unmistakable throaty croon. Ambient sounds—the dogs barking, people talking—as well as seconds of near silence, made their way into the mix. As beautiful as the melodies and the epiphanies they carry often are, the songs are not what you would call “pretty.”
This makes the album a significant departure for an artist whose early style was defined in large part by sophisticated, bespoke arrangements created with collaborators like acclaimed producer and composer Jon Brion. Yet Bolt Cutters wouldn’t be the extraordinary experiment in aural and lyrical honesty that it is if it sounded too polished. The record is a missive from the mini-studio in Apple’s house to whatever confined space we’re stuck in these days, compelled as we are to spend a lot more time than usual in our own heads. It offers us a roadmap to understand who we are and make peace with who we have been; to take responsibility for our worst selves and protect our best ones; to come out of our ordeal stronger, wiser, but still self-critical. From Fiona’s lips to God’s ears: We’re gonna be fine.
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