Review: Fiona Apple, ‘Fetch The Bolt Cutters’ – Genius Unleashed

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Since it had been eight years since the last Fiona Apple album, 2012’s The Idler Wheel, I’d never have dreamed she’d drop the ultimate lockdown album a few weeks ago. While most of these songs were written prior to our current world situation, with its themes of breaking free, it’s perfect for right now. I think we’re all feeling a little confined these days… It’s like U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, an album the band wrote (in part) about the loss of Michael Hutchence. The themes of loss and sadness became universal after 9/11. I think Apple’s new album will come to define this time period in much the same way. The new album, Fetch The Bolt Cutters, even features several tracks where you hear dogs barking in the background. Now that I work from home, I can’t tell you how many conference calls and Zoom meetings I’ve been on where someone’s barking dogs in the background are the star of the call. My wife’s cat even meowed on a call I was hosting yesterday… such is our new reality.

It may surprise some of our faithful readers to find out that I’m a fan of Fiona Apple. More accurately, I’m a big fan of hers. I got on her bandwagon almost from the beginning. In 1996 I was dating the last in a series of psychopathic women and we finally ended the dismal affair that fall. Believe me, I wasn’t the most stable person at the time and I was attracting a certain type. I own my piece of the whole thing, but I digress. I remember going to the CD store with my friend’s younger brother. At that stage of the game, on the end of each row of CDs, the store had a “listening station” where you could actually hear an album before purchasing it. It was what we thought was cutting edge at the time. It certainly helped keep me from buying some duds back then.

I was standing at one of the listening stations, listening to tunes in an attempt to stave off my latest broken heart. Music and booze were my salves even then (bourbon and vinyl to the rescue). While the latest breakup was a very good thing, I had enjoyed the summer of going to my cruel and deranged ex’s lake house… always look for the upside. My friend’s younger brother walked up and handed me Fiona Apple’s debut CD, Tidal. “You’ve got to listen to this…” Her album was loaded on the listening station so I switched over to it. While I gazed into those beautiful, haunted blue-grey eyes, “Sleep To Dream” exploded into my ears and hit my lower brain stem. Oh, yes! I walked out of the store that day with that album in my stack of CDs. That album probably has her biggest hit, “Criminal,” but for me her signature song has always been another track on the disc, “Shadowboxer.” The image of someone punching the air in anticipation of an opponents next move was indelible…”Once my lover, now my friend, what a cruel thing to pretend.” This (then) 19-year old was a genius. This is what I’d imagined an album by Sylvia Plath would sound like had she been a singer and not a novelist/poet. ‘The Bell Jar’ set to piano? I felt like I was reading her diary. And… in the situation I found myself in back then, it was like she’d read my diary too.

By 1999, when her second album, whose title set a Guinness Book World Record for length which I’ll abbreviate here to When the Pawn… came out, Apple was a well known artist. Some of her public behavior had caused quite a stir. By that time I had taken control of my own life and had exorcised a lot of my own demons which included not dating unstable women. I enjoyed When the Pawn… which again explored the themes of relationships, failed and otherwise, in songs like “Get Him Back,” “Limp,” or “Get Gone.” That album disappeared somewhere… and perhaps because I was in a happy place, I never replaced it which is a shame. I went back and listened to it again and it was remarkable. I don’t think Apple has ever put out a bad album.

It was six years later when Apple came out with Extraordinary Machine. I fell in love with the title track. By the time the album came out I was happily married to the Rock Chick and in a great, great place. A friend burned me a copy of that album but looking back I think it was the original version… Fiona had gone into the studio with Jon Brion, who produced her first two records, and didn’t like the sound. She went back into the studio with a different producer to recut the tracks. However, someone leaked the original Brion production and I think that’s what I had. Having listened to both recently, the official release was indeed definitive. I remember Dave Matthews having a similar issue around the material that became Busted Stuff. The Napster era was indeed a weird time.

After that, I became oblivious to Apple’s work. I wasn’t even aware, or at best was only vaguely aware of 2012’s The Idler Wheel (another long poem title, abbreviated here). As prep for this post, I went back and listened to it for the first time and was blown away. It’s a quiet album, mostly featuring her voice and piano with Charley Drayton providing some interesting percussive elements. I had never heard any of this – proof that radio has failed us all. I will admit, hearing the whole album I couldn’t help but think of what Petty sang years ago, “The A&R man said, “I don’t hear a single”…” I get it, you gotta have a hook to get played on the radio. It’s a brilliant record nonetheless and certainly worth everyone’s time.

And now, Apple has released what is perhaps is her masterpiece. The title comes from the television cop show, ‘The Fall’ featuring a rather fetching Gillian Anderson… love the accent. She recorded the album in her home. I can’t tell if she produced it or she produced it with her talented backing band: Sebastian Steinberg (bass), Amy Aileen Wood (drums), and David Garza (vibes). Every member of the band plays multiple instruments, but I only listed their primary one. And as I mentioned, this is an album of a troubled soul looking for freedom. It’s certainly breathtaking. There is a lot of “homemade” percussion here. I think they were rapping on any surface they could strike here. There are times when even the piano sounds like it’s being used as a percussive instrument. I realize that a lot of you will struggle with the sound of some of this album. The more I listen to this album, the more it makes sense to me. Nothing will really prepare you for the aggressive sound of this record – it’s certainly not The Idler Wheel – especially the vocal gymnastic Apple goes through.

The opening track, “I Want You To Love Me” starts off as a lovely piano based ballad but Apple descends into an almost Yoko Ono like screeches and chirps. It’s your first hint that this is going to be a different album. “Shameika” is a great song about bullying. I love the chorus, “I’m pissed off, funny and wrong.” The song is a whirl which feels like the fear of being bullied set to sound. I also particularly like the line, “Sebastian says I’m a good man in a storm,” inspired by a band drug bust. What’s cooler than a band drug bust? On the title track, the lyrics just spill out of Apple, like she’s just freed herself after a long captivity… she’s in a hurry to impart the message… “fetch the bolt cutters I’ve been in here too long.”

There are so many tracks I love here. “Under the Table” recounts a dinner party Fiona made a bit uncomfortable for some inappropriate asshole, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.” Thank God she won’t!! “Relay” features lyrics she wrote when she was 15, “Evil is a relay sport, when the one whose burned turns to pass the torch.” It reminds of a Springsteen lyric, “poison snake bites you, you’re poison too.”

There are a number of stand out tracks on the back end of this record. My favorite, and perhaps my favorite on the album is “Ladies.” I love the way she sings the title over and over…”Ladies, ladies, ladies…” “Heavy Balloon” is one of the greatest songs about depression that I’ve ever heard. “Cosmonauts” is an intense emotional track, which ends with Apple screaming. It’ll grab your attention. “For Her” gets the prize for the most arresting lyric, “You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” Wow, that’s raw. The emotion is palpable.

I highly recommend everyone hear this album. This woman is an absolute genius which sadly means some won’t get it. I’m not saying you have to be a genius in order to get it – God knows, I’m no fucking genius. This album is at turns challenging, inspiring and believe it or not, funny. I know Apple has a lot of demons, nothing I want to go into, but I hope this album signals she’s in a better place. She’s more than a pop artist, she’s an important artist. People will be listening to this album, deciphering it, analyzing it in a 100 years.

Stay safe out there folks. Me, I’m filling a tumbler of vodka and fetching the bolt cutters…

 

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