When Gillian Anderson asked her colleague to “fetch the bolt cutters” on a random episode of BBC’s The Fall, she inadvertently influenced the conception of Fiona Apple’s nascent fifth-album in a fundamental way. Apple described to Vulture how the title track – and the album in general – is about breaking out of whatever prison you’re in, even if it’s self-imposed. The culmination of her most hermetic work yet coinciding with the peak of COVID-19 seems almost cosmic in its coincidental nature. Just like that, Fiona Apple was instantly crowned the internet Queen of Quarantine with the midnight release of Fetch the Bolt Cutters.
Having lived the practices of social distancing long before they were legally mandatory, Fiona was ahead of the reclusive zeitgeist while assembling the album in the idyllic confines of her Venice home studio. She worked on FTBC with musicians Amy Wood, Sebastian Steinberg and David Garza, but guest contributions from friends, her dog, and a meowing Cara Delevingne proved just as integral to its homespun heart. Fiona’s unflinching singularity has yielded obvious comparisons to trailblazers like Yoko Ono and Kate Bush, with the latter being directly addressed and adulated on the title track. The wry observations, bombastic percussion and dramatic vocal range found on the album also unveil a previously sheathed connection to Tom Waits. However, while some aspects of its sequencing are loosely reminiscent of Swordfishtrombones, the point of view is entirely her own.
Fiona’s childhood traumas and resulting mental health struggles have been well documented throughout her career, but FTBC is the first album to be firmly grounded in them. In an excellent New Yorker piece, Fiona explains to Emily Nussbaum how her focus on rhythm is rooted in childhood OCD rituals such as crunching leaves and counting her breaths. This instinctive rhythm shapes the percussive tone of the album, making it the most unique and visceral work of her discography. It also manifests in a manic sonic palette that mimics the very dispositions she poetically deliberates. The drums sound like pots and pans banging on the walls, and other beats sputter in and out like retreating background noise. This dynamic pervades “Heavy Balloon” which portrays a metaphor for depression through a contrast of quiet musings and sharp, desperate pleas. However, while the album’s tone is bumpy and frenetic, there’s an empowering quality to the way she navigates and harnesses the chaos. A dark sense of sordid humor casually underscores the bedlam, like if the woman from The Yellow Wallpaper found recuperative self-care in her imprisonment.
The popular “Cosmonauts” is the most likely single for the album, but even the most traditionally palatable song (originally written for the film This Is 40) contains a discordant interlude that would leave a casual listener reaching for the AUX cord. While earlier albums extended a hand to the mainstream through marketable hits, Fetch the Bolt Cutters takes no interest in appeasement. She thought the world was bullshit in 1998, and she’s not impressed with influencer culture in 2020 either. “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure” she declares on the fiery “Relay”. At one point she understandably sought recognition, but is now making music solely on her own terms. On the closing track, she describes how she was “up until now in a rush to prove / now I only move to move.” Fully unhindered by the expectations of the music industry for the first time, she was free to create an album with full creative control. By making no compromises, she wasted no opportunities.
Fiona’s albums are famous for not-so-subtly detailing the relationships that were often scrutinized by the media. Her recent interviews in both Vulture and the New Yorker revealed her unfiltered views on former romantic interests, as well as how the men in her songs are often amalgamations of each other. The songs themselves carry the same caustic candor, particularly “Under the Table” which narrates an uncomfortable dinner confrontation through a series of cheeky retorts: “I would beg to disagree but begging disagrees with me”. She has been an ardent supporter of the #MeToo cause, and while the individuals are unspecified, certain inferences are discernible.
Another unprecedented quality of the album for Fiona is how indirect relationships with women are weaved throughout the various narratives. On “Shameika”, Fiona recalls how a simple affirmation from a passing classmate helped buoy her through a turbulent, socially-alienated childhood: “Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend / but she got through to me and I’ll never see her again”. She’s also been vocal about how her sister, Maude, best friend/roommate, Zelda, and “son,” King Princess have been integral to the spiritual formation of the album. One of the longest and most sonically inviting tracks, “Ladies” is all about not letting men pit women against each other. It includes harmonies from her sister, Maude, and serves as a calming refrain between the dark tumult of “Newspaper” and “Heavy Balloon”.
Fetch the Bolt Cutters was well worth the wait, but also has the added impact of signifying Fiona’s self-introduction to Generation Z. The reception has been almost unanimously positive, with the internet flooding with memes and teens texting their parents that they’ll finally listen to those Fiona Apple CDs. It also cements her status as a full-fledged cultural icon, crowning a twenty-four-year span of honest, consistently compelling albums and amassing a diverse following of passionate fans. In her New Yorker piece, Nussbaum describes how Fiona “wanted to take all the risks of her early years, but this time have them work out right”. After decades of needless acrimony from the media and music industry, it feels like they finally have.