Apple’s new songs face down both past and present injuries: bullying, sexual assault, destructive mind games, romantic debacles, her own fears and compulsions and the people who have taken advantage of them. At times it’s a meta-album, grappling with the insecurities that prolonged its own recording process; “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is only her fifth release. More often, it’s an artfully unguarded anthology of one woman’s ongoing battles against depression, mendacious lovers and toxic memories, offered not with self-pity but with self-awareness and flickers of rage. It’s no wonder Apple ends up growling and walloping things.
Percussion defines the sound of the album: standard drum kits, handclaps, foot-stomps and a warehouse full of accessories from sleigh bells and wood blocks to what sound like giant, booming parade bass drums. Apple has toyed with percussion-centered arrangements before, in songs like “Daredevil” from “The Idler Wheel…,” but on “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” she commits.
Yes, vestiges of Apple as a meticulously presented, piano-playing singer-songwriter are still there, particularly in the album’s opening songs. And whether she’s cooing with sarcastic solicitousness or rasping close to a scream, she articulates every word clearly, emoting but never losing control. But her piano recedes and sometimes disappears over the course of the album, while clatters, clanks and thuds throng around her.
Meanwhile, she warps the expectations of verse-chorus-verse forms, talk-singing or chanting as long as she wishes, sometimes letting choruses of overdubbed Fionas — dulcet ones, jabbering ones — completely hijack her tunes. Some people may hear those tangents as self-indulgence, but I hear them as freedom.
WESLEY MORRIS: So do I, Jon. She sounds let all the way out. But I have to tell you guys that whatever I’m typing today about this album is raw, unprocessed (I’ve listened only twice) and certain to be riddled with typos — because my hands are shaking.
LINDSAY ZOLADZ: First of all, I would like to thank Fiona Apple, the patron saint of not leaving the house, for dropping such a rich, itchy record in the middle (hopefully?) of our communal quarantine. “Fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long” is definitely a lyric I will be muttering to myself with increasing urgency in the coming weeks.
I am floored by this record. I hear freedom, too. These songs make some breathtaking hairpin turns, like the sudden sweep into the gorgeous, plinking chorus of “I Want You to Love Me” that ultimately splinters into wild yelps that, to my ears, conjure Yoko Ono. It’s the first glaring indicator that the rest of these songs are not going to conform to patriarchal ideas of propriety — most of the time they seem to be aiming to directly defy them.
One of the album’s unifying themes is women and Apple’s relationships with them, not in a rah-rah #empowerment sense but in a much more complicated and often very raw manner. A standout is “Shameika,” named for a schoolmate of Apple’s who — in a eureka moment for the artist that she admits Shameika probably doesn’t remember — told our antsy, tortured, self-doubting future songwriter that she “had potential.” The verses are chaotic torrents of piano and percussion, and then the world suddenly stops as Apple sings, in an almost hammy, Elton John kind of way, “But … Shameika said I had potential.”
This record is so casually wise about formative trauma and the ways our early experiences ripple outward, not just in our own lives but in those closest to us: “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” My therapist would love this album.
I’m curious what, if any, sonic analogues this record brings to your minds. It doesn’t sound quite like anything else in Apple’s — or anyone’s — catalog, but something about the mastery and liberation of it reminds me of “Hissing of Summer Lawns”-era Joni Mitchell. I’ve long thought of Fiona and Joni as kindred spirits, not sonically but more because of the way they both turned their backs on easier career trajectories and instead hacked their own winding paths out of wilderness. I also find their songwriting to often be interrogating one of the same central questions, which is whether a woman can ever be truly free while also loving men. Because for all its moments like “Ladies,” this record certainly has some things to say about men!
PARELES: Sonically, I’d say this is her Tom Waits pivot, similar to the turn he made on “Swordfishtrombones,” when he decided that the usual singer-songwriter productions weren’t getting to the raucous, clattery essence of his songs. But his voice and Apple’s are worlds apart.
MORRIS: I never hear other artists when I listen to her — she’s too singular and of her own concocting. This time though, I do sense Waits and Mitchell. But in the space of two bars on the title song, I detect Rickie Lee Jones and Beyoncé. Other places, Nina Simone, Kate Bush, Shakira, Merrill Garbus and Lorde. (Simone has always been there in Apple spiritually; these others are new.) Her phrasing here runs a thrilling new gamut? (Jon P., you’re so right about her enunciation). The bolt cutters are to let her out. But what if they’re also to allow new things in?
Take “For Her.” It opens with the sigh of a person mustering the fortitude to get out of bed — or swing an ax. It’s under three minutes and has three sections. The first is a kind of playground chant that you do in a hand-pat game with a friend — “Facts!” she interjects — but at a faster, nervous pace and about something dark and remembered. Then it becomes a rebuking tribal cheer: “like you know you should know but you don’t know what you did.” Then the bottom drops out, and it turns into what I can only describe as a holler spiritual that turns into a flood of wailing. Whoever the rapist is in this song, he’s being surrounded, about to get his.
There’s almost no recording artist with this direct a line to my inner self — she can get to my heart, nerves, brain, hips and feet. But she’s also found the route to this visceral and abstract place deep inside me. What is that: my core? My soul? I don’t want to name it. That feral cover image, that title — part grind-house revenge thriller, part stream-of-conscious memoir and author photo — made me so excited that I almost burst into flames.
JON CARAMANICA: “Kick me under the table all you want/I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up” — once you hear Fiona sing this firmly, defiantly, a little amusedly, you can’t unhear it. This, on the fourth song, “Under the Table,” was where the album really opened up for me: jazz koans meet protest chants meet children’s song sweetness.
From there, overdrive: blues stomping on “Relay” (“I resent you for being raised right/I resent you for being tall” — make no mistake, these are active, not passive crimes). And soon after that, the one-two punch of “Newspaper” and “Ladies,” about the kinship between those who know what it’s like to be let down by the same person (or who are soon to know, at least).
On “Ladies,” she sings, generously:
There’s a dress in the closet
Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it
I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine
It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine
Apple sings for the aggrieved: an informal, invisible and maybe even imagined support network that becomes real the moment it’s sung into existence. If you’re on the wrong side of this team-up, God help you — you did it to yourself.
ZOLADZ: That moment about the dress is also one of my favorites! As both Jons pointed out, some of the most affecting lines on this record find Apple extending a warm hand to the sorts of women that society has always deemed her “competition” — the popular ones in grade school, the It Girls of the ’90s music industry and, most subversively, her exes’ subsequent girlfriends. It’s so rare to hear any of that explored in a song.
Something I appreciate about “Ladies,” though, is her unsentimental understanding that plenty of these olive branches will be ignored: “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through,” she sighs. Even in the post-#MeToo atmosphere that this record so artfully captures, establishing a sisterhood is hard work.
PARELES: Regarding men, there’s nothing like the Fiona Apple side-eye. Like “Drumset,” where she shoots down a guy’s excuses for not giving a relationship a chance by telling him, “You’re a human, and you’ve got to lie: You’re a man.” Or the takedown of a musician in “Rack of His” as she looks at his fancy guitar collection — we’re seeing these now in all the quarantine sessions webcast from home studios — and wistfully talk-sings about “that row of guitar necks/Lined up like eager fillies, outstretched like legs of Rockettes” before complaining that he didn’t “wail on me like you wail on them.”
But a scenario I haven’t heard often in songs, if at all, is the one in “Newspaper,” where she identifies with her ex’s new girlfriend as she sees — and now recognizes — the way he undercuts her: “I watch him walk over, talk over you, be mean to you/And it makes me feel close to you.”
CARAMANICA: It’s funny, there’s this moment on “Cosmonauts” that took me right back to “Tidal,” musically. And by that point in the album, I very much did not need that callback. If this is Apple’s most experimental work, I also find it to be the most soothing — as if she has arrived at forms and formats that are perfect kin to the work her voice is doing, which is haymaker-intense and balance-beam nimble.
We haven’t talked about the album closer, “On I Go,” yet: It floored me. Sort of a fascinating, circular pattern in the vocal rhythms; incisive and destabilizing percussion; plenty of empty space that leaves room for shock. It reminded me of some of the thrilling and unanticipated lyrical experiments of mid- to late-’90s independent hip-hop, when words and drums turned from building blocks to Silly Putty.
ZOLADZ: There’s been a lovely feeling of communal excitement around this record’s release. Maybe I’m biased toward knowing more Fiona Apple fans than the average person, but it certainly feels much of the music world is attuned to her frequency right now — as I write this, my downstairs neighbor is blasting the entire album. It’s a bit counterintuitive, since there wasn’t a single or much traditional promo surrounding this record, but it seems to me like the first big musical monocultural event to unite us all in our self-isolation, with all (or at least some) due respect to Drake giving us a tour of his mansion in the “Toosie Slide” video.
Most critics seem united in their opinions of it, too (Pitchfork dropped its first perfect 10 since “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”). I’m curious if there’s going to be a backlash to all the hosannas, or if any of you find this record to be less than extraordinary.
MORRIS: I do not! It’s everything you’ve said — alive with a 42-year-old woman reconciling with her adolescence self, the very one who gave us songs like “Sleep to Dream,” “The First Taste” and “Sullen Girl.” That teenager is who I hear harmonizing with Apple here. The rhythms on that first album are rippling quietly here. “Heavy Balloon” could have fit in on “Tidal.” Except that “people like us” lyric opens it. She’s synthesizing and empathizing, reaching out here, in a new way. As you all have vividly pointed out, it’s a reckoning record — with her selves, her men, her ideas about songcraft. Where can she take herself? How else can she sound? Childing, wounded, winded, wise, sure.
(STORY CAN END HERE. OPTIONAL MATERIAL FOLLOWS.)
PARELES: It’s not just the wild craftsmanship of each song. It’s also that she’s fearless about what she’s doing: with sounds, with structures, with people’s expectations. “On I Go” doesn’t just end the album with a rhythmic explosion — it’s also a manifesto. “Up until now in a rush to prove,” she sings. “Now I just move to move.”