Once the dust had settled on the UK lockdown in spring, you started to hear a cautious kind of optimism. Maybe, on the other side of all this, a better world might be possible – less capitalist, kinder and more humane. Until then, there was Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
When Fiona Apple released her fifth album in April, its title quickly became a meme for those feeling suffocated by their own four walls and wanting out. Apple had a different kind of freedom in mind. She had pretty much quit public life years earlier to live in Venice, California, with her housemate and their dogs, mostly leaving the house for walks on the beach at dawn. Isolation gave her the distance to observe the world’s workings and propose something better.
Recorded over a five-year spell, Fetch the Bolt Cutters encompasses every euphoric rush and hopeless roar of Apple’s introspection. She used that period to build the homespun rhythms that created the album’s unique nervous system: the percussive instrumentation includes “collar jangles and thrashing”, “lighter on Wurlitzer” and “water tower”. Her unconventional song structures follow the current of her thoughts; her piano swaggers like a ship in a storm and curdles from tender to sour like a time-lapse of fruit rotting. At any moment, sweet, stagey harmonies might disappear beneath industrial clatter. That mercurial force pulls you into every moment as Apple telescopes between historic incidents that once diminished her.
She pulls at their common thread. The middle-school girls taught to disdain nonconformists echo in how a man tells his new girlfriend that his last one was crazy to keep them apart. The accepted rules of an industry dinner make outspoken truths unwelcome and feed a wider culture where glamour can mask abuse. Exploitative men foster codes of silence and mistrust, which makes it more conspicuous for Apple to want to save a woman from a mutual abuser than for his mistreatment to pass: “I watch him let go of your hand, I wanna stand between you,” she sings on Newspaper, her voice shaking as if with the force of restraining herself, “but it’s not what I’m supposed to do”.
Her joyful sprawl defies the propriety that keeps things as they are. “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up,” she sings at that dinner party on Under the Table, revelling in childish, sing-songy stubbornness. Many people first knew Apple as the teenage waif contorted into dark corners in the video for 1997’s Criminal. The too-close selfie on the cover of Fetch the Bolt Cutters can’t contain her bug-eyed glee, a clue to its abundant disregard for restriction. “I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill,” she sings on the roomy title track: “Shoes that were not made for running up that hill / And I need to run up that hill … I will, I will, I will.” The song ends with her catching her breath, surrounded by barking dogs and high bass twangs, summit scaled.
Apple’s last album, 2012’s incandescent The Idler Wheel …, was full of ornate language: both a spectacle and a raised guard. (“How can I ask anyone to love me when all I do is beg to be left alone?” as she asked on Left Alone.) Fetch the Bolt Cutters is more direct, its targets unequivocal. Apple’s comic timing fuels the energy behind every second. She delights in skewering showmen and tries their swagger on for size, whether clocking the humourless musician of Rack of His whose fancy guitars are all for show – “lined up like eager fillies, outstretched like legs of Rockettes,” she sings suggestively – or seeing how it feels to be the big cheese: “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies,” she sings on Ladies, like a big shot spreading his arms at a soiree, even though she knows she’ll come away empty.
Her wit sharpens to undress those affectations. For Her is a whole play in under three minutes: a breathless close-harmony chorus line of women (Apple, infinitely layered) observing a film executive manipulating the world to his will, degrading starlets, getting “his girl” to clean up his mess and confident in getting away with his abuses. Apple leaves him nowhere to run. She uncouples from her harmonies, the golden layers of her own voice fading to a ghostly coo, and roars: “Good morning, good morning / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in,” lifting the melody from Singin’ in the Rain’s Good Morning. The musical classic promises a bright new day. So does Apple.
Invested in self-knowledge, not morality, Apple reaches back to her early adolescence, when she has said her relationship with other women first got messed up. In the title track, she recalls taking to heart the mean girls mocking her for being unfashionable and sensitive. “I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet,” she sings. But another song, Relay, centres a chorus that Apple wrote when she was 15: “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch,” she chants with the zeal of a new recruit. She didn’t just already have a voice (she signed a record deal at 17), but also a profound understanding of how wrongdoing feeds like a virus. More than 25 years later, she completes the song and breaks the chain. The verses jangle as she lashes out at a superficial and complacent person, the shallow rhythm stoking Apple’s vitriol. But it climaxes with a quiet apology – “I’m sorry,” she says, deflated.
It builds Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ revelatory concept of love. There’s no conventional romance. Some have suggested that Cosmonauts is too pretty to fit here, but perhaps that’s a clue to its uncomfortable vision: director Judd Apatow had asked Apple to write a song about monogamy for This Is 40, which she cast as a lonely, resentful drift through space. “You and I will be like a couple of cosmonauts, except with way more gravity than when we started off,” she sings daintily, before letting her voice bear that weight. (It didn’t make it to the film.) It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the concept of inescapable pressure also guides Heavy Balloon, a gorgeous song about how depression crushes growth – both intolerable situations. Though that’s a love song, too: “People like us, we play with a heavy balloon,” she sings, extending a hand to anyone in despair. On Ladies and Newspaper, Apple knows that her appeals for women to share the burden of being mistreated by the same man won’t get through, but across the album, women from her band and her family – and many layers of Apple herself – sing together in playground chants, a cappella harmonies and spirituals, a vision of truth set free through community.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters contains a lifetime’s worth of compassion. For long-term fans, part of the impact of Apple’s fifth album was knowing how much she has survived to reach this lucidity – she was raped by a stranger at the age of 12, thrust into an exploitative and male-dominated music industry at 16 and has experienced mental ill-health and substance use. There is no shortage of scathing, brilliant wisdom on each of her albums, but Fetch the Bolt Cutters is exceptionally openhearted and patient; conscious of the difference between who you are and what people have said you are; between knowing something intellectually and being ready to hear it – or to let it go.
It was the perfect album for lockdown – Apple’s tenderness and sense of justice subverted the cult of stoicism that hardened in an intolerable year and said it was OK to expect more. But it’s also a whole toolbox for the future. “Whenever you want to begin, begin,” she sings on I Want You to Love Me. “We don’t have to go back to where we’ve been.”