By Coleman Bandy
First you see the cover. Like a throwaway collage from an amateur art class, it begs to not be taken seriously. In purple lettering, “Fiona Apple” is splayed above a goofy black-and-white photo of the singer-songwriter staring into her camera with a half-smile, one eye centered in the frame like an indie-rock cyclops. A few lightning bolts adorn the sides of her face. Then you see the title: Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
Many great albums aren’t universally acclaimed upon release; it takes time for the music to fully take hold. Only after 10 or so years will the record cement itself as a classic, its grooves slowly working their way into listeners’ long-term memories.
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is not one of those records. Over 50 minutes of perfect Venice Beach pop, Apple’s latest – by far the best of her career – is clearly a masterpiece of modern music. I’ve never heard anything quite like it before.
Its thematic and lyrical grandeur resembles Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks,” its instrumental sparsity recalling Spoon’s “Kill the Moonlight,” but make no mistake: “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is entirely its own animal. Built largely on Apple’s peerless singing voice and a bombastic, percussive rhythm, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” uses Apple’s lyrics as its primary source of power. Album opener “I Want You to Love Me” is nothing short of a manifesto on the meaning of life:
“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’ll 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 you to love me”
From there, she expands on themes she’s explored her whole career, but never before with this much poise or confidence. “Shameika” describes a middle school girl who instilled confidence in Apple at a young age, “Rack of His” flip-flops stereotypes about the male gaze, “Ladies” aims to bring warring women together. And then there’s the title track, a feminist call-to-arms in which Fiona echos a line she once heard on a TV show: a detective finds a woman’s chained and mangled body. “Fetch the bolt cutters,” she says. Set us free, Fiona.
Throughout pop music history, some of the very best albums tend to reflect the zeitgeist in an almost mystic way: think “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “What’s Going On.” That FTBC was recorded in relative isolation by Apple and a tight-knit group of collaborators – years before ‘social distancing’ became a household term – is nothing short of serendipitous. Its greatest power, though, is its capacity to inspire. Through its decidedly feminist themes of rape, consent, oppression, and finally fulfillment, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is not only a relic of the Coronavirus epoch, but perhaps the magnum opus of the “Me Too” era.
That’s not a statement to make lightly, but then again, Fiona Apple doesn’t do *anything* lightly. In a frankly fantastic New Yorker expose, Apple sounds unchained and unafraid. She talks about her turbulent public relationships without apprehension. She ponders what it means to forgive the man who raped her at age 12. It’s as if she’s finally reached the apex of some great climb, that she’s no longer “Running Up That Hill” like the Kate Bush classic she references in the title track.
In reality, she will probably always be running up that proverbial hill, seeking permanent peace that may be unattainable. But brief moments of “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” offer a clear-eyed view of the other side of that mountain. If music can’t achieve the impossible, what can?