ALBUM OF THE MONTH - Apr. 2020: Fiona Apple - Fetch The Bolt Cutters
I've Been In Here Too Long
- Content Warning: Fiona Apple's latest album is a deeply introspective deconstruction of the place of femininity in the modern world. In doing so, a number of difficult topics are addressed, particularly engaging with emotional trauma, psychological illness and sexual violence -
The 2020 return of Fiona Apple, eight years on from the release of 2012's The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw..., will quite rightly be remembered as an album that defined an era. In the post-#MeToo landscape of (glacially improving) female empowerment, Fetch The Bolt Cutters may just stand out as the all-encompassing expression of dissatisfaction, resistance and feminist articulation of its time. The album is raw, quick and unpredictable. Distant, yet simultaneously profoundly intimate. It is one of the best realised albums of 2020, and is already an utterly essential listen for the new decade.
There is a cliché in music writing, where describing the line between the artist and their instrument becomes blurred by a haze of virtuosic talent. Be that Miles Davis and his trumpet, J Dilla and his MPC3000 or Joanna Newsom and her harp, the greatest musicians do not *play* their instruments, but rather play through them as an extension of themselves. Fiona Apple fits very much into this category, being a gifted musician and vocalist herself, but even beyond that it is remarkable to experience with Bolt Cutters the near total elimination of the boundary between the artist and the means of her expression. Banging against her walls, re-purposing household items into percussion and making cat meows and dolphin noises into her microphone, this latest LP is a testament to Apple's wonderful creativity, expressing her musical invention in the most direct and unrestrained of ways. Much like John Coltrane's ability to speak directly through his saxophone, Fiona Apple's chaotic imagination is gift-wrapped in her DIY music-making, refining her creativity to its simplest, and most emotionally immediate form.
It is of course, very difficult to criticise Apple's fifth full length project without addressing the shadow of Jean Pelly's earth-shaking 10/10 review score over at Pitchfork back in April. The declaration of Bolt Cutters as the first perfect record since Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is of course an invitation for internet scepticism (particularly in overlooking the majesty of Fleet Foxes, Kendrick Lamar etc.) but what is immediately clear within this latest album is that there is indeed very little to find wrong in it. Despite the designation of this record as a flawless piece of work, and the desire of many to prove that wrong, what cannot be overstated in regards to this album is simply how unique and distinctive this eccentric project is. Even in comparison to Apple's earlier work, Bolt Cutters stands out as a distinct moment for the music of 2020, and the re-invention of an already legendary artist.
That is not to suggest that this LP is a collection of simple, stripped down music. Far from it. This is a project of intricate design, impressively weaving found sounds with impactful instrumental composition and deep layers of meticulously designed vocal performances. Opener 'I Want You To Love Me' perfectly demonstrates the qualities this record has on offer. Eclectic, playful and yet genuinely impressive - the LP opens up with a charmingly amateurish MIDI drum loop, reminiscent of a similar breakdown from LCD Soundsystem's 'Dance Yrself Clean', but then gives way to a gorgeously recorded piano performance and Apple's gravelly roars. The central lyrical motif of
I want somebody to want
And I want what I want and I want,
I want you to love me
lays the groundwork over and over again for the record as one that regularly combines wistful desire and the empowerment at the very heart of the act of wanting. Apple makes her dolphin clicks as track 2, 'Shameika,' emerges as the opener's second-act, with the tune igniting the chord progression of 'I Want You To Love Me' with an unpredictable beat and tempo while the singer's forceful deconstruction of childhood bullying and the 'potential' of teenage femininity hits a home-run of remarkable storytelling. Lyrically Apple constantly fires out t-shirt-slogan-worthy nuggets of genius, going from "Griding my teeth to a rhythm invisible" to chanting "Hurricane Gloria in excelsis deo." Amazing.
The album is not without its faults however, with the homespun recording style that Apple explores so expansively with Bolt Cutters proving to be both a positive and a limiting factor to her music. Though the handcrafted improvisation of the album is both unique and regularly meaningful, there are certainly times within the album where the recording environment of this project actively harms its art. 'S' sounds regularly pierce through the mix with shrill and unpleasant hissing noises. Certain songs do little to justify their place on this album and the general clarity of many of its instruments do get lost in the ambitious scale of this songwriter's music-making. Ultimately these aren't colossal criticisms, and are largely only even identifiable against the comparative genius of Fiona Apple's creativity, but when an album begins receiving recognition of flawlessness, it is important to recognise its shortcomings, whatever they may be.
Title track 'Fetch The Bolt Cutters' is a brilliant fusion of the homemade improvised percussive noises that define this album. With dog barks and kitchen utensils overlapping across a sedately mesmerising double bass contribution from the gifted Sebastian Steinberg, the track combines itself into a song that typifies precisely what this album is about:
Fetch the bolt cutters, I've been in here too long
With Apple so perfectly encapsulating what this burgeoning era of hopeful, self-determined female liberation, the album proves itself to be impossible to ignore as a powerful statement against the constructions of misogyny. 'Under The Table' does similarly, featuring some quite bowel-rupturingly low end bass vibrations, before the brilliant 'Relay' continues to sparkle with Apple's gifted lyricism:
Evil is a relay sport
When the one who's burned turns to pass the torch
She wrote that line when she was fifteen years old. It's so fucking good. 'Relay' (like a few moments on Bolt Cutters) was triggered in particular by the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite his repeated sexual harassment allegations and the high-profile court hearings against him. The album is at the same time both exhausted and impossibly motivated by the repeated presence of abusers at the seats of power internationally. Be it Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Brett Kavanaugh or Bill Clinton, the incomprehensible scale of abuse against women in both a political macrocosm, and an immediately personal manner, gives both life and pain to Apple on this record.
'Rack of His' is perhaps the album's first mis-step. Despite its witty wordplay ("Check out that rack of his / That row of guitar necks") it is a quite noticeable drop in quality in terms of how interesting the song is to listen to. Moving on, Apple's desire to present a defiant overcoming of pervasively abusive misogyny works exceptionally effectively. Bolt Cutters' camaraderie of female experience, complete with backing vocals provided by Apple's sister (while breastfeeding) and the design of tracks like 'Newspaper' and 'Ladies' in direct conversation with femininity continue the albums brilliant lyrical engagements, albeit being two tracks that, like 'Rack of His', are not particularly interesting or distinct when compared to Bolt Cutters earlier moments.
They are followed by the phenomenal 'Heavy Balloon' and its exploration of the psychological strain of depression, featuring an absolutely stellar bass line, again from Steinberg. The percussion is consistently astounding throughout this record, but it sounds particularly colossal on this track, reinforcing the metaphorical weight that the 'balloon' of Apple's psychological anguish presses upon her, explored through the immediacy of its percussive power. That high bassline that slides in subtly throughout the latter halves of the verse sections is a highlight, even among an album of this quality, and again lyrically Apple has moments of totally unique brilliance:
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
I promise that's the last time I'll quote the lyrics. Maybe. It's quite difficult to resist pointing out how relentlessly exceptional Apple's lyrical craft is. 10th track 'Cosmonauts' starts off slow, before developing into an excellent chorus (and a few brilliant breakdowns) that ultimately more than justify its place in the tracklist, but is made to look a great deal worse by being placed next to the incredible 'For Her.' Fiona Apple's personal experience as a survivor of sexual violence is hard, and perhaps improper to remove from the track's exploration of abuse, and hearing the singer decry "Good morning / Good morning / You raped me in the same bed / Your daughter was born in" delivered an emotional blast more explosive than anything I have heard in 2020. Surprising, harrowing and utterly necessary, the shock of such a matter of fact expression of collective female suffering truly transcends description.
Final song 'On I Go' is one of the more abstract and experimental moments on the record, and benefits from it. Loud and abrasive, Apple's uncontrollable energy always sounds as if it's on the verge of eruption. Being tantalisingly volatile for every second of the track, the release of this last song allows the fluctuating intensity of Bolt Cutters to reach an emotional high moment in its final act. Off-kilter string sounds and brutal drum patterns provide a satisfyingly intimidating conclusion to an album that would've suffered particularly badly from a weak ending. The drums again sound utterly phenomenal, and the artist's chants are powerfully resonant - though leave the door ajar as it leaves, not granting the listener a comfortable conclusion.
And that's exactly how it should be. As an album that offers an incredible insight into the mindset of defiant femininity, to end on a note of optimistic resolution would likely have felt an improper ending. Bolt Cutters is an incisive cross-section of shared female pain and Apple's personal experience, excelling at both. This is an album that will almost certainly be reflected upon as truly emblematic of the political landscape of the (hopefully) late-Trump administration, but in actuality goes much further than a commentary piece confined to its time. In truth, the wider significance of Fetch The Bolt Cutters as the expression of female experience will likely grow in weight with each passing year. It is the defiantly rebellious masterwork of an exceptional artist, wrapped up in a shroud of sensationally imaginative production and transcendent lyrical artistry. Its negatives are present, though rare to find, but its tracks are almost all as laser-guidedly precise as the next, presented in a distinct package of experimental songwriting. It is an incredible expression of artistry, and it was entirely worth the eight year wait.
- 9.5 -
'Fetch The Bolt Cutters', 'Relay', 'Heavy Balloon'
Ben Wheadon is editor and founder of Slow Motion Panic Masters. He is a Welsh musician and English Literature student at King's College, London and he should be writing a dissertation instead of creating a blog.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales.
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