Indie

With ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters,’ Fiona Apple Returns With Another Classic

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Long before we were all forced into it, Fiona Apple turned social distancing into an art form.

For the better of the early 21st century, the masterful 42-year-old singer-songwriter has sequestered herself away from the pop mainstream she once uncomfortably ruled. In the past 20 years, she’s only put out three albums — including her latest, Fetch The Bolt Cutters and the gap between releases has grown longer with each LP. That she retreated to her home in Venice Beach was not a surprise — at the height of her early fame, she famously stared down the vacuous hordes at the MTV Video Music Awards and declared that “this world is bullshit.” This clearly was not a person who longed for the red carpet. What is surprising, however, is how this separation from the larger culture hasn’t diluted her skills as an artist or perceptive observer of human nature. In spite of the eight years that separates her new album from 2012’s The Idler Wheel …, Apple remains bracingly vital, with a perspective that’s as insightfully thorny as ever. Perhaps more than any other musical artist, she understands that we have ways of infecting and even destroying each other that have nothing to do with pandemics.

Take the title track, which derives from a line of dialogue in the Gillian Anderson British crime TV series, The Fall. Over a clattering, rhythm-centric instrumental track — constructed in part from a “percussion orchestra” of various instruments and household objects that Apple painstakingly assembled herself — she recounts feeling ostracized as a teenager: “The cool kids voted to get rid of me / I’m ashamed of what it did to me / what I let get done.” (She could also be referring to the fallout from the VMAs incident, when she was a popular target for mockery in the media.) You might think that the title phrase alludes to an introvert escaping exile, but Apple actually flips it in novel, droll fashion. For her, the escape is into exile, emboldened by the confidence of an adult woman who can look back and see that her tormenters “don’t know shit.”

This, again, might seem like typical thematic terrain for a Fiona Apple record. But what makes Fetch The Bolt Cutters feel like a new high-water mark for her — is it possible to rank all five of her albums as tied for her best? — is how she has pared her music down to the barest essentials, while also deepening and broadening her lyrics, finding fresh nuances that eschew easy answers or reductions.

This is her rawest record, but also her funniest, distinguished by sparse yet eccentrically detailed soundscapes that provide a backdrop for Apple to fully explore every aspect of her (and perhaps your) highly contradictory inner life. She’s furious and forgiving, full of love and hate, and capable of both eviscerating and soothing her subjects.

This comes through in her words, as well as her music. Fetch The Bolt Cutters uses the final track from The Idler Wheel …, the ecstatic Andrew Sisters-in-hell tour de force “Hot Knife,” as a starting point, removing almost every sound that is not a voice or an irregular beat. The vocals sound like first, or at least imperfect, takes, preserving every cracked or frayed note, creating moments of unnerving emotional violence amid the hypnotic rattling that surrounds her. Imagine if Beyonce made music inspired by the first Roches LP, and you’re not that far off.

That’s right — I said funny. You don’t hear that adjective enough applied to Fiona Apple. Intense? Cathartic? Soul-baring? Yes, those words all still apply. But there’s also a sardonic quality to her curmudgeonly dismissal of other people. This Larry David aspect of her work comes through most clearly on “Under The Table,” which is about how dinner parties are the absolute worst. I actually laughed out loud the first time I heard her deadpan delivery of the opening line of the first verse: “I told you I didn’t want to go to this dinner.” Of course she did! Who thought Fiona Apple of all people would have fun at this party? She proceeds to describe her lack of patience with the boorish man who dragged her there with acidic glee. “Kick me under the table all you want / I won’t shut up.” Cue the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme.

And then there’s “Shameika,” the wittiest and truest song about feeling zero nostalgia for childhood since Steely Dan’s “My Old School.” Over a theatrical piano lick that sounds like a cut-up parody of her Extraordinary Machine period, Apple relates another anecdote about being bullied as a child, with loads of pithy details about how she tried and failed to deflect her classmates by acting tough or ignoring them. In the end, however, there’s a small moment of triumph, related in the chorus: Her bully says she “had potential.” Even when Fiona is down, she is never out.

While fans having been writing down Fiona Apple lyrics for solace in their journals since the late ’90s, Fetch The Bolt Cutters stands apart as her best-written album. In terms of both style and substance, her songs have never been as quotable or inviting for close reading. “Rack Of His,” which features the album’s most dynamic and unvarnished vocal, also includes some of her most dazzling writing, including this show-stopping line: “Check out that rack of his / Look at that row of guitar necks / Lined up like eager fillies / Outstretched like legs of Rockettes.” It’s the poetic equivalent of an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo.

As a narrative, “Newspaper” is the most gripping track: A woman becomes obsessed with the new lover of her ex, a feeling driven by jealousy and empathy, and manifested by a somewhat unhealthy desire to befriend this person. The music — a booming, syncopating slap that sounds like a bat hitting a trash can and a set of pots and pans occasionally accompanied by a chorus of heavenly voices — suits the song’s Hitchcockian set-up. It’s not clear whether the protagonist is a hero or villain; her feelings are virtuous and a little unhinged.

Fans and detractors alike have caricatured Apple over the years as a spiteful “scorned woman” figure, forever raging at cruel, unfeeling men. But the most compelling dynamics explored on Fetch The Bolt Cutters are between women, and how the world (to quote “Newspaper”) makes “sure that we’ll never be friends.” If there’s a connective thread in these songs, it’s Apple working her way through to the other side of this, from the self-awareness of “Relay” (“But I know if I hate you for hating me, I will have entered the endless race”) to the righteous fury of “For Her,” which was inspired by the Kavanaugh hearings. Here, again, Apple is a master of commingling conflicting emotions for maximum emotional effect, setting the album’s single most disturbing lyric — “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in” — to some its most ebullient music. In the end, identifying the rage in yourself is the first step toward transcending it.

Throughout my listens of Fetch The Bolt Cutters, I kept having the same thought: I can’t imagine another person on Earth, living or dead, making this album. This, ultimately, is what was happened during Fiona’s hiatus away from the rest of us: She became her own genre. How lucky are we that it just grew by one more classic.

Fetch The Bolt Cutters is out now via Epic Records. Get it here.

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