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Review and Reflections on Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
Apple’s acme arrives, in a sharp, honest, funny and warm flurry. Here are the thoughts I arrive at on life, death, gender and belief.
Fiona Apple’s new album Fetch The Bolt Cutters might well be the most critical and essential album of this year. Critical, in the sense of the acclaim and adoration which has been universal. Essential, in the sense that it boils concepts and sounds down to their most elemental. Both those words, in terms of importance, necessity, relevance.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters has already been labelled a masterpiece. Pitchfork has awarded it their first 10/10 in 10 years (the last being Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — which is okay because Yeezy has confessed to being a massive Fiona Apple fan). The New Yorker released an in-depth profile penned by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Emily Nussbaum last month. NPR hosted a live listening party for the album. Vulture talked through all songs track-by-track with Apple. I completely subscribe to all the hype and fanfare, but I wonder what possible contribution I can meaningfully add to this critical and essential album. The answer is a perspective absolutely nobody asked for, but which you’re getting anyway. This is a subjective review on why the record is so important to me, how it resonates with my experiences, and how it influences my ideas on feminism.
Fiona Apple’s last album, The Idler Wheel, was released in 2012, eight years ago, when I was 17 and about to graduate from high school. The Idler Wheel was her fourth album and FTBC is her fifth. Apple’s debut Tidal was released in 1994, when she was 17, she is now 42. Tidal earned her a Grammy and thrust her into the music world as a critical darling, a prodigious and precocious debutante. The early years of her career were marred by tour exhaustion, creative exhaustion, public breakdowns and mental health struggles. The present-day Apple now lives a notoriously reclusive life at her Venice Beach home amongst her dogs. She insisted on hastening the release of this new album, FTBC, to avoid the media and promotional commitments amid a perfectly-timed pandemic. The advance release gifts the world a perfect listening companion to help embrace isolation. Nussbaum writes that “Apple came of age in a culture that viewed young men as potential auteurs and young women as commodities to be used, then discarded.” I didn’t know any of this as a 17-year-old listening to Fiona Apple on The Idler Wheel for the very first time. It was unlike anything I had ever heard. All of Apple’s work including this latest record, is still peerless, her voice has defied mimicry for 28 years.
To high-school me, this art pop folky classically-grounded sound was like a more avant-garde Regina Spektor (I had heard ‘Samson’ and for some teenaged contrarian reason decided I didn’t like it, so wrote Spektor off — I’m not proud of it). I liked The Idler Wheel though, I played the piano as a child and sung mezzo/alto, I liked that those were Apple’s instruments too. I liked that it was properly called: “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do,” I liked that it made me think and I liked that I probably didn’t understand it. It was a strange imposter syndrome, simultaneously appreciating the music, knowing it resonated, while thinking that it must necessarily be above me. I was terrified of over-intellectualising, but also proud of it. I was and still am scared of being found a fraud, and I thought I was surely a fraud to think these songs spoke to me, they were written by a woman with much more life behind her, wiser perhaps than I will ever be. When I realised that Apple released her first album at the same age that I was then, 17, I felt inspired but also vastly inadequate.
I’d clearly begun comparing myself against other women. It’s an insidious theme of womanhood that Apple addresses on FTBC. Like Apple, I had few female friends in my youth. In the growing-up I’ve done these 8 years since The Idler Wheel (I now measure time increments by Fiona Apple Album Eras), I’d like to think I’ve lost some of that adolescent self-loathing and doubt. I definitely have more female friends now. I’ve often sung alongside Apple in my car to the war-cry: “Every single night’s alight with my braa-aaa-aa-aain!” and then the quiet pleading “I just want to feel everything.” It feels ecstatic, liberating, unifying, just as this new record does with all its signature vocal jolts, clattering rhythms and clashing pianos.
These last few days I find myself licking the words “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies,” and then spitting out:
“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”
“Ladies” is an appeal to the good women not to fall prey to being pitted against one another. The lyrics are as generous as the sentiment. She sings to future partners of her current partner inviting them to “please be my guest” and take the things she leaves behind in the kitchens and bathrooms and cupboards, like a dress that “belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine / She left it behind with a note, one line, it said / ‘I don’t know if I’m coming across, but I’m really trying’ / She was very kind.” Apple hilariously re-appropriates that patronising, sticky phrase “ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies,” that you’d usually expect to come out from the mouths of slick men, probably proceeding a “calm down.” Yet despite the mocking of men and arm outstretched to women, the cynic in Apple believes that normative forces still churn out women that aren’t open to her generosity, that she can’t get through to them.
Childhood reminiscence plays a part in Fetch The Bolt Cutters and perhaps goes some way to explaining the relationship that many women have with their gender. The track “Shameika” reflects on school-aged Apple, outcasted and “…not afraid of the bullies / But that just made the bullies worse.” Yet a throwaway comment struck Apple as a girl: “Shameika said I had potential” […] “back then I didn’t know what potential meant / And Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend but / She got through to me and I’ll never see her again…” In an article with Vulture, Apple recounts many of her schoolyard friends being propositioned by more popular girls: “‘Okay, you can be friends with Fiona or you can be friends with me. Choose.’ And I never got chosen.” I had a similar experience when I was 7 years old. A friend called Shelby was, one day, invited to join a posse of popular girls. She said she would be their friend if I’d be allowed in too. The girls rejected me because my hair was black and not long, like their flowing blonde locks. Shelby astutely pointed out that she had dark hair too, only slightly longer than mine, so why was she welcome? The first-grade “it” girls had been outwitted and had no response! Unlike Apple, I had been chosen over the wavy blondes. What a great act of loyalty from a girl who is now a stranger to me.
I continued to be obsessed with the idea of the “cool girl” as an object of desire, fascination and scorn. At 11 years, I set about writing a treatise on why the popular kids were popular, what gave them status. My findings were: they sat in the vicinity of the oval, were tall and sporty, caucasian, their parents generally knew one another. It struck me as senseless that social credit could attach to those arbitrary unifying traits. Still, this kind of behaviour unsurprisingly didn’t earn me many friends. A similar resentment appears in “Relay,” which features a lyrical hook that Apple wrote at 15: “Evil is a relay sport / When the one who’s burnt turns to pass the torch.” She resents career influencers on social media for “presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure.” Apple resents people for being raised right, being tall, for having never faced opposition. However, I can’t draw the parallels any further between my own petty grievances and Apple’s 15 year old self. Unlike myself, Apple had been raped by a stranger when she was 12.
In Fetch The Bolt Cutters, Apple confronts sexual violence more explicitly than ever before. Apple initially kept distant from her own assault because of the banality she saw in it, she described it to Q Magazine in 2000 as “a boring pain. It’s such a fuckin’ old pain that, you know, there’s nothing poetic about it.” To me, the #MeToo movement has not just emboldened women to speak up but has also created a subtle revolution within female expression. It goes beyond a feature of fourth-wave feminism, it rests at an intersection with the (somewhat dated) notion of neo-feminism or lipstick feminism, that there is a unique quality about the female experience, their voice and authorship. I see this coupling of empowerment and gender-essentialism exemplified in Apple’s new album.
“Relay” takes the Apple-aged-15 lyric about perceptions of justice and the nature of evil begetting evil and uses it to address a new fury, towards Brett Kavanaugh and men like him who are convinced they’re the “good guy.” Apple says the disgust and anger she felt toward Kavanaugh helped her “see the light of day.” Fiona Apple’s own former relationship with Louis C. K. is also a source of fury. Initially she hoped that C. K. was a perpetrator who finally had the capacity for remorse, that he could perhaps communicate it into his comedy. But, lacking any evidence of his repentant behaviour, she tells Nussbaum that she thinks, “he’s useless […] I SHAKE when I have to think and write about myself. It’s scary to go there but I go there. He is so WEAK.”
In “Newspaper,” Apple reaches out to two people who share an abuser creating this intimate secret that they may not know about, “It’s a shame, because you and I didn’t get a witness / We’re the only ones who know.” Again the theme of woman against woman, because of man, is involved: “ I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends.” She acts as an advocate in “For Her,” again for sexual assault survivors. It’s loosely written for a woman who was assaulted but did not use the label of rape due to her position as an intern and the abuser’s relationship of power. “For Her” is one of my favourite songs, to me it sounds like a rallying cheer addressed to women, or a schoolyard challenge hand clapping game. The pom-pom’s are out for the bouncy, stripped back, race of lyrics leading to the suddenly brutal “Well, good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.”
Apple’s music has long confronted the masculine figures and flaws of her personal relationships. This record still has these tracks, essential for any breakup playlist. She calls out the guy who dragged her to a dinner she didn’t want to be at, “That fancy wine won’t put this fire out, oh / Kick me under the table all you want.” She conglomerates experiences from past relationships in “Rack of His.” She understands that “And you’ve got to lie, you’re a man / And you’ve got to get what you want” on “Drumset,” a song written about a moment of petulance against her bandmates following a romantic breakup. On FTBC Apple explores the wider implications of patriarchal behaviour and it is a testament to her artistic courage.
The theme of defiance has already been bandied about in reviews of Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Throughout the album we hear retaliatory lines like “Bang it, bite it, bruise it,” “I would beg to disagree but begging disagrees with me,” “And I see that you keep trying to bait me / And I’d love to get up in your face,” “I won’t shut up,” “I resent you.” In the song “Fetch The Bolt Cutters” Apple draws on Kate Bush with insistence that “I need to run up that hill, I will, I will, I will, I will.” By this point her defiance and expression is not a choice, it’s an imperative.
The title track was written last, after the album had already been named. It references a line from the procedural drama The Fall. It’s spoken by Gillian Anderson playing the lead character, Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, a sexual crimes investigator on the hunt for a serial killer who is torturing and strangling women in Belfast. Stella coolly instructs a policeman to “fetch the bolt cutters” to unlock a shack where a female victim had been imprisoned. Fiona Apple states herself that the track and the record are about more than just speaking your mind, it’s about breaking free from the shackles that you find yourself in.
I watched all three seasons of The Fall in the last few days and one particular line stood out. Stella is cleaning up a wounded colleague who she has just punched in the face after he drunkenly tries to coerce her into sleeping with him. He asks her: “Why are women emotionally and spiritually stronger than men?” She responds: “Because the basic human form is female. Maleness is a kind of… birth defect.” The natural female form is so inherently present and celebrated in FTBC. Historical socially constructed notions on gender associate femininity to traits like vulnerability, empathy and nurturance (let’s reject the ones like frailty or submission). Apple is a sensitive empath of the finest degree.
Nature itself is often gendered: mother nature, female pronouns, life cycles and fertility. This album certainly has an organic sound. Indeed, Apple, an avid hiker, initially toyed with the idea of basing FTBC thematically on the natural world before it morphed into what it is now. It draws on the power of nature: “look at how feathered his cocks are,” “I spread like strawberries / I climb like peas and beans,” “fruit bats.” You’d forgive Apple for being a mad dog lady with the amount she talks about her dogs in interviews and the cacophony of barking dogs present in this album. Cara Delevingne also provides a “meow” in one of the tracks, a feature artist that could only be bested by Carole Baskin herself. Apple does not shy away from ugly words, rhythmic dissonance, and vicious themes — but her music is not savage. There is a delicateness even in the ugliness, in the hallmark vocal warbles and tuneful melodies, there is still beauty in her fury. I think this is what gives this music its power and gives it the ring of truth.
The chaotic soundscape created by the percussive stomps and bangs and dings makes this album so raw. It is generated by Apple and her bandmates walking around her Venice Beach home, being noisy and wild, and recorded on GarageBand. Of course, since the beginning of medicine’s history, chaos and instability were linked to women through the diagnosis of hysteria. In the Middle Ages, it was seen as demonic possession. An excess of melancholy/depression increased susceptibility so women, particularly unmarried ones, were at high risk. Excess femininity was still considered an ailment by the time of Freud. By embracing some of the feminine tradition that lead the basic female form here, maleness becomes the birth defect. Combining feminist essentialism with the trailblazing fourth-wave themes like sexual assault discussed above, Fiona Apple takes possession of ideas of womanhood and spits it in our faces.
The album is capped at either end with songs that ground us in time and space. “I Want You To Love Me” re-introduces us to Apple after 8 years of hermitage, “I’ve waited many years / Every print I left upon the track / Has led me here.” The song draws from a trance-like epiphany during a Buddhist retreat. “On I Go” at the end of the record also has meditative roots. “ 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” is a version of a Vipassana chant Apple recited down the lens of a CCTV camera in her cell, during a night she spent imprisoned for a cannabis possession. She says it isn’t necessarily a song about “staying in the present,” it is just about being. Placed at the end of the album it declares to the fourth wall that this is her offering to the world, and it is what it is.
A verse in “I Want You To Love Me” has become a favourite bit of prose for me:
“I move with the trees in the breeze
I know that time is elastic
And I know when I go
All my particles disband and disperse
And I’ll be back in the pulse
And I know none of this will matter in the long run
But I know a sound is still a sound around no one
And while I’m in this body
I want somebody to want
And I want what I want and I want”
It captures a mix of scientific certainty and metaphysical transcendence. The words reverberate with a strange newfound spirituality I have, following the recent suicide of my boyfriend. I read “that time is elastic” and think about the temporal bubble I experienced following the trauma of his passing, and of the limited time we had together, a small handful of years which defy being placed relative to the totality of my life or his because they seem so completely pivotal. I’m not religious and I don’t believe in a god, I have always believed that death is like before birth, that in the long run the end is the end. But since I lost him I just believe that when I die my essence will dissolve into the void, and that I will recognise his spirit. That I will “be back in the pulse.” It’s not something that sustains me or that needs to be true, I can easily imagine it not being true and that thought is comfortable too, but it’s just a feeling of knowing I will feel him and his love again.
In spite of all the intelligent and reasoned existential dread/comfort conveyed in the above phrase the following line is a most universal want that grounds us, “And while I’m in this body / I want somebody to want / And I want what I want and I want / You… to love me.” Apple starts with the demand of wanting, followed by the “you” drawn out and almost hesitating before deciding to reveal the sincerity of her emotional needs. In one breath she makes love as crucial as science, spirit, life and death itself.
Fiona Apple’s well honed skill of self-examination projects outwards on Fetch The Bolt Cutters, her aptitude for introversion gives her a firm grasp of the feminine psyche and equips her to deconstruct masculinity. It gives her the ability to sing about sexual violence with both poignancy and brevity, with songs that feel right at home alongside break-up anthems and childhood tales. She communicates urgent topics, internal and external, with wit and sincerity. As always, Apple goes totally against the current and in the process, finds something truer in the undertow. Fiona Apple is a meticulous documenter of the human condition and a true bard.
Fetch The Bolt Cutters by Fiona Apple
Album · 2020 · 13 Songs. Available with an Apple Music subscription. Try it free.
Released Apr 2020 on Epic Records
words by Joy Qin
Personal favourites: “I Want You To Love Me,” “Ladies,” “For Her”