Like fellow singer-songwriter Scott Walker, Fiona Apple achieved fame at a young age by making music that was more sophisticated and adventurous than that of her peers. Now, with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she’s made an album not unlike Walker’s The Drift—that is, unmistakably in the pop idiom but aggressively unconventional. But if Walker’s late-career music was alienating and difficult, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is compulsively listenable, full of catchy melodic hooks and turns of phrase that linger with you long after the album is over.
One of Apple’s strengths as a songwriter is her specificity. She has an almost matchless ability to translate small moments from her personal experience into intense, vivid vignettes that elicit a deep sense of recognition. “Shameika,” based on a real-life remark from a classmate of Apple’s, is filled of sharp details—a bored child marking the passage of time and the anxious grinding of teeth—backed by an enervating piano arpeggio and an ever-shifting time signature. The chorus—“Shameika said I had potential” repeated four times, sung by Apple with a combination of surprise and pride—is punctuated by a jaunty piano chord. The contrast between the frenetic, nervous energy of the verses and the poise the singer displays during the chorus is stark, recalling the way a child’s emotions can turn on a dime.
Another track, “Under the Table,” is similarly based on an actual moment from Apple’s life and functions as a bit of historical revisionism: At a fancy dinner party, she takes issue with an offensive remark and—at least in the song—pushes back. The track opens with a sing-songy line that’s structured like a riddle: “I would beg to disagree/But begging disagrees with me.” It’s clever, but more than that, it’s soul-nourishing. To refuse to beg in the face of someone convinced of their own rightness is about the most alive one can possibly feel.
Yet another stinging indictment of faux-righteousness, “Relay” is delivered with an almost holy venom: “I resent you for being so sure/I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure.” Apple reportedly wrote the hook—“Evil is a relay sport/When the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch”—when she was just 15, and it feels especially timely, the song’s staccato rhythm giving it the feel of a protest chant.
Songs like “Relay” and “Rack of His” describe a world that treats women as commodities of exchange. This reaches an apotheosis on “For Her,” which serves as the album’s seething conscience. A fictionalized account of a young woman abused by a Harvey Weinstein type, the song is arranged like a chorale, with an array of delicate vocal parts guiding the listener throughout. By the time Apple arrives at the song’s most cutting line—“You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”—the layered voices give way to one of her most searing vocal performances to date. Apple imbues the line “Good morning” with wrath, a vicious indictment of American life and the systems designed to protect the powerful.
Not everything on Fetch the Bolt Cutters, though, excavates such misery, as Apple’s tone is often triumphant. The opening track, “I Want You to Love Me,” starts as a plainspoken appeal for the affection of its subject, with Apple meditating on philosophical questions: “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.” What’s more, the album’s emotions are ultimately all in service of dismantling oppressive structures. For one, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” whose title originates from a line of dialogue in the British procedural drama The Fall, during a scene in which Gillian Anderson’s character attempts to free a young woman from a torture chamber, is a paean to self-liberation.
Released in the midst of a global economic and health crisis that could have been largely prevented if not for the disastrous mismanagement of a ruling class for whom mediocrity is an unattainable level of functionality, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is prismatic for all that it reflects. On a purely musical level, it’s a bold experiment in pop craft, a collection of songs on which Apple stretches her talents in adventurous new directions. It can be read biographically, as a self-conscious act of narrative-building that continues to define Apple’s legacy as an artist. Most importantly, the album is a vituperative catalog of the failures and pointless cruelties of a society propped up by fragile, nihilistic, patriarchal ideology. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is Apple’s most timely—and timeless—effort yet.