Fiona Apple raises the bar again on ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters – album review
It's been eight years since Fiona Apple gave us the already-classic The Idler Wheel..., and a lot has changed in that time. I won't get into the social and cultural and political changes that her new album Fetch the Bolt Cutters feels like a direct product of (I think we pretty much know about those). But among other changes we now find ourselves in an environment in which this new Fiona Apple album is an event in a way that feels exceedingly rare in the pop music world. It's remarkable that this 42-year-old artist, a relative recluse by 21st century standards, who's been in our lives since the mid-'90s, is at the center of this truly particular zeitgeist. And what's perhaps more remarkable than that is the album itself, yet another artistic breakthrough after what, with her last album, seemed like a peak.
The Idler Wheel... felt like a masterful refinement of her talents. Fetch the Bolt Cutters feels like a bold mutation, an album that breaks free from a lot of the tropes of her classic material while maintaining the core elements that we love about her. It's hard to think of recent music with so few obvious points of reference--this is unmistakably her, in a way that makes all her previous music seem like a warmup. This is not to denigrate her already-great back catalogue but to emphasize just how much of a progression this album feels like. It's an album driven by pulsing, pounding rhythms punctuated by howls of emotion. She's never been afraid of putting out music that's messy or abrasive or that wears complex, difficult emotions on its sleeve, but this feels like a new high in those terms. Songs like "Relay" and "For Her" and "On I Go" feel like statements of purpose--manic, angry mantras for a fucked-up world, not so much driven by hooks as they are by chants. For lack of a better descriptor, these songs feel punk as fuck in a way that's new for her.
All that being said, there are still plenty of conventional pleasures here. Opener "I Want You To Love Me" is a perfect way to start, driven by a liltingly gorgeous piano figure and a melody that morphs unpredictably. One of her great skills as a songwriter is the turn of melodic phrase that catches the listener completely off-guard, that feels weird-but-right in a way no one else could have imagined. This album is full of such moments, like when the choral harmonies come in on the searing "Newspaper," or the pre-chorus of "Cosmonauts" (probably the most old-school Fiona song here), when her alliterative rhyme scheme locks into place just so. On those songs, as on much of the material here, there's a sense that she's masterfully wrangling chaos, allowing the right amount of rawness and freedom but maintaining a careful attention to form. Never a fan of verse-chorus-verse structure, here she sutures together songs from seemingly disparate parts in ways that feel both intuitive and carefully constructed, perfectly attuned to the way tonal and structural wildness can yield emotional catharsis.
Her lyrics are still as brilliant as her musical inventions. Here there's less sadness in her poetry, more righteous anger and measured self-interrogations. She can still casually destroy a shitty ex better than anybody, as on "Under the Table," when she sings "I'd like to buy you a pair of pillow-soled hiking boots/To help you with your climb." The title track is a lyrical tour-de-force, a Kate Bush-quoting personal history that seems to do everything at once, dealing with celebrity, bad relationships, jealousy, and shame with all of the cutting insight and note-perfect rhythmic application that only she can deliver. But the hopefulness, the dare-I-say inspirational notes of the chorus feel like a breakthrough--there's a sense that she's excavating her past with the newfound intention of moving forward, and that sense is powerful.
"Ladies" is another highlight, light and funny and gorgeous, a jazzy slow-jam that's at once celebratory and self-deprecating. "Heavy Balloon," which is a devastating examination of depression, has a thunderous, incantatory chorus that feels like a declaration of musical sovereignty. And my favorite thing here is "Drumset." It's the type of subtly devastating requiem for a relationship that she's known for, but with her newfound rhythmic emphasis and structural freedom, and it's perfect. The chorus reminds me a little of Sloan's "You've Got a Lot on Your Mind" and Paul Williams' Beach Boys tribute for the Phantom of the Paradise soundtrack. But as is always the case with Fiona Apple, it also doesn't sound like anything so much as it just sounds like Fiona, a generational artist on full display in all her ragged glory.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters is out now on Epic. Stream it below: