Fiona Apple returns with complex lyrics and a minimalist style in 'Fetch the Bolt Cutters'

by Jack Hargrove | 4/20/20 3:00am

After eight long years, 1990s teenage pop sensation turned reclusive savant Fiona Apple has released her fifth album, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” As longtime fans know, Apple’s album release schedule is erratic; she has only released five albums since her 1996 debut “Tidal,” which she released when she was 18 years old. Apple’s prodigious talents as a writer are apparent even on her first album, but her teenage immaturity and naivete are also obvious. While the 90-word title of her second album, often shortened to “When the Pawn …,” initially annoyed fans and critics when it debuted in 1999, the complex, jazzy instrumentals and tremendous lyrical improvement won over most listeners. A protracted dispute with her label created a six-year gap before the release of Apple’s third album, “Extraordinary Machine,” in 2005, which introduced full orchestration behind her music.

It was not until 2012 that Apple reinvented herself with her fourth album, often shortened to “The Idler Wheel …” due to another unwieldy title. For this record, Apple stripped her instrumentation down to the basics: her voice, piano and percussion. Lyrically, Apple was introspective, analyzing her own behavior with her trademark snark and vitriol.

Now, on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” Apple turns her focus outward, decrying the many pressures imposed on women by men and, at times, by other women. Musically, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is defined by its do-it-yourself aesthetic, dominated by homemade percussion and found sounds. On this album, anything and everything can be percussion — Apple bangs on pots and pans, drums against the walls of her house and even shakes a box containing her dead dog’s bones. The cover of the album looks like it was made in five minutes in Microsoft Paint. This DIY aesthetic accentuates the “me against the world” ideas in Apple’s lyrics. On “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” Apple makes a far greater statement than most other albums do while using little more than a piano, everyday objects and, of course, her own genius.

Apple introduces the album with the song “I Want You To Love Me,” a love song that yearns for an idealized man. Before she uses her experiences to describe the real world in the following tracks, Apple holds out hope for a successful and healthy relationship. Over a fluttering piano, Apple sings, “I’ve waited many years/Every print I left upon the track, has led me here/And next year, it’ll be clear/This was only leading me to that/And by that time, I hope that/You love me.” Despite the bitterness and anger found in many of her songs, Apple is no cynic; she believes a better world is out there.

After presenting a distant fantasy, Apple spends the rest of the album cataloguing the ills of the world. Like all of her other albums, there are quite a few songs that discuss her relationships with men. However, on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” Apple also sings about important female influences in her life, both positive and negative. On the second track “Shameika,” Apple details the bullying she faced in middle school and the unexpected help she received from a girl named Shameika. Apple sings, “I’m pissed off, funny and warm/I’m a good man in a storm/And when the fall is torrential, I’ll recall/Shameika said I had potential.” The warm words from a girl Apple only met once help her wade through hardships to this day.

Conversely, Apple documents the dangers of competing with and comparing herself to other women on the title track, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” Here, she sings, “While I’d not yet found my bearings/Those it girls hit the ground/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.” Apple’s lyrics about fitting in with glamorous women contrast with the barebones instrumental, which features pots being used as drums. This juxtaposition signifies Apple’s growth into someone who no longer cares about conforming to standards of style and beauty.

On the tracks “Newspaper” and “Ladies,” Apple describes her perceptions of and relationships with the girlfriends of her manipulative ex-lovers. Apple tries to bond with them on “Newspaper,” singing, “I too wanted to make him proud of me/And then I just wanted him to make amends/I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me/To make sure that we’ll never be friends.” In “Ladies,” Apple takes a more pessimistic view, lamenting that her ex-boyfriend’s new lover is “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.” On these tracks, Apple demonstrates how manipulative men turn women against each other.

One of the greatest strengths of “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is Apple’s willingness to be vulnerable; she is unafraid to express her anger or sing about her insecurities. On the track “Relay,” she sings, “I resent you for being raised right/I resent you for being tall/I resent you for never getting any opposition at all.” Apple accentuates the anger in her lyrics by stretching her voice to its limits, nearly yelling in some songs. The minimalism in this song rests in the reliance on just her voice and a drum set. Every word from Apple’s mouth drips with emotion, conveying her message even to those who choose not to focus on the lyrics.

Apple’s vulnerability on this record allows her to thoroughly explore her depression and insecurities. The song “Heavy Balloon” provides an apt metaphor for her depression with the lyrics, “People like us, we play with a heavy balloon/We keep it up to keep the devil at bay, but it always falls way too soon.” On this track, Apple paints a picture of her mental state with her descriptive lyrical style. 

Despite the sordid subjects of many of this album’s songs, Apple remains humorous. On “Rack of His,” Apple pokes fun at herself, singing, “And I’ve been used so many times/I’ve learned to use myself in kind/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.” Apple uses self-deprecating humor in a song about her ex-boyfriend using her like an object to not only lighten the mood, but also to show her mental control over the situation. The song “Under the Table” is particularly funny, beginning with the turn of phrase, “I would beg to disagree/But begging disagrees with me,” and singing in the chorus, “Kick me under the table all you want/I won’t shut up.” Through levity, Apple masterfully conveys serious topics while never sounding cynical or self-important.

“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” also contains — as with most of Apple’s music — its fair share of ambiguous, impenetrable and outright weird lines. In “Ladies,” she sings, “Ruminations on the looming effect and the parallax view/And the figure and the form and the revolving door that keeps/Turning out more and more good women like you/Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.” Apple’s mastery shines through in lines like this, choosing to weave dense, well-crafted lyrics about mundane situations. The line, “I spread like strawberries/I climb like peas and beans/I’ve been sucking it in so long/That I’m busting at the seams,” in the song “Heavy Balloon” is another line that takes some work to understand. It seems most likely that she is referring to the root systems of these plants, but understanding their relevance to her mental state requires work from the listener.

The emotional climax of the album occurs on the 11th track, “For Her,” which highlights the minimalist style of the album with hand-claps and a nearly a cappella style. Written with outrage during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Apple draws from her experience with rape to paint a harrowing portrait of surviving sexual assault. Almost rapping, she sings, “Maybe she spent her formative years/Dealing with his contentious fears/And endless jeers and her endless tears/And maybe she’s got tired of watching him,” empathizing with other survivors and detailing what it is like to see an abuser be successful. The anger comes to a head when Apple snarls, “Well, good morning! Good morning!/You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” The sheer indignation with which Apple sings this line will make anyone sick to their stomach. With “For Her,” Apple makes her definitive statement on her perception of sexual assault in today’s world.

The album closes with the track “On I Go,” in which Apple disappears as abruptly as she entered with “I Want You to Love Me.” The lyrics consist almost entirely of the lines “On I go, not toward or away/Up until now it was day, next day/Up until now in a rush to prove/But now I only move to move,” repeated over and over. These lyrics stress the importance of moving forward and the impermanence of life. This song reads as Apple’s farewell for another long period of time. It highlights the importance of savoring her music and looking forward to her future creations. Was “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” worth the nearly decade-long wait? Yes. And I cannot wait to hear what Apple has in store in another decade.

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