Of all the memorable turns of phrase on “Tidal,” the 1996 album that established 18-year-old Fiona Apple as a songwriting prodigy, perhaps none proved to be more prescient than the line that closes out the chorus on “Sleep to Dream”: “I got my own hell to raise.”
Looking back, that line reads as the mission statement of Apple’s life. In the context of “Tidal,” it was just another drop in the bucket, another link in the chain. The album is a parade of gorgeous verse built around naturalistic imagery, with songs that alternate between sorrowful, soul-bearing confessionals and penetrating outward missives. It still invites repeat listens and close reading.
On Apple’s fifth studio album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” she once again speaks truth to male power with eloquence, force, and perspective.
On Apple’s fifth studio album “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” which gestated for eight years and came out on Friday, six months ahead of schedule, she once again speaks truth to male power with eloquence, force, and perspective. It is at once an explosion of feelings and a careful study of fury; the different forms it can take and ways it can be repressed, funneled, understood and unleashed.
In 1997, nine days shy of her 20th birthday, she whipped up a firestorm with her righteous, off-the-cuff Best New Artist acceptance speech at the VMAs, in which she declared that the entire entertainment industry revolved around the “bullshit” premise of celebrity worship. This wasn’t an act. Apple lived the same way she wrote — with intent and without fear.
Early in her career, Fiona Apple withstood intense scrutiny from male music critics, many of whom painted her as an ingenue and mistook her precociousness and candor for immaturity. In his review of Apple’s 1999 album “Where the Pawn…,” Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield called her a “spiritual sister” to the juvenile emotional solipsism of Korn and Limp Bizkit. In the aftermath of her infamous VMAs speech, NY Rock’s Otto Luck called her “annoying” and described her “husky, lovelorn voice,” “big blue eyes,” and the “much-publicized account of her rape at age 12” as a “formula made in heaven.” “The record execs at Sony must be coming in their Calvin Kleins over this one,” he concluded.
Such sexism has not aged well. Apple’s music is interior and interpersonal, but it also operates in a much broader context, in conversation with (and defiance of) entire institutions and dominant ways of thinking. Her famously long 1999 album title (“When the Pawn…” is merely the shorthand for a title that approaches 100 words) was inspired by a scathing Spin reader letter criticizing her VMAs speech. Her song “Please Please Please,” written at the behest of her label, is a sarcastic rejoinder that criticizes the creative pressures the industry exerts on its artists.
Apple has suffered a litany of abuses from men inside and outside her industry, and she has spent much of her career firing barbs directly into the male gaze.
Apple has suffered a litany of abuses from men inside and outside her industry, and she has spent much of her career firing barbs directly into the male gaze. Her blunt honesty, once divisive and self-sabotaging, now feels like a rallying point that helped usher in a new era. A quarter century after “Tidal,” it is now blessedly less taboo to openly discuss things like mental health, eating disorders, and rape.
But it’s still a man’s world. Apple dedicates a large swathe of “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” to chronicling her own youth, as she examines how thorny relationships between teenage girls, and later, grown women, are shaped by insecurities and insidious social norms. If “Bolt Cutters” gestures towards any conclusion, it’s that men are almost solely responsible for Apple’s trauma.
On “Rack of His,” she objectifies men (or their guitars) almost as an act of vengeance. In last month’s profile of Apple in The New Yorker, she revealed that her portrayal of depression in “Heavy Balloon” was partly inspired by a scene in the Showtime series “The Affair,”man where a man murders his lover by fracturing her skull, then tossing her into the sea. “For Her,” which she recorded after the Judge Brett Kavanagh hearings, begins, “Look at how feathered his cocks are/ See how seamless his frocks are,” then quickly devolve into a lucid anxiety spiral, a moment of clarity:
“Maybe she spent her formative years
Dealing with his contentious fears
And endless jeers and her endless tears
And maybe she's got tired of watching him
Sniff white off a starlet's breast
Treating his wife like less than a guest
Getting his girl to clean up his mess”
The mood of “For Her,” at least at first, is that of two young gal pals singing and rhythmically stacking cups in unison at summer camp. Apple’s lyrics drip with scorn, but her voice betrays no anger. Conversely, on “Heavy Balloon,” she channels the gritty timbre of Melissa Ethridge and chants, “I spread like strawberries/I climb like peas and beans,” as if pumping herself up for a gladiatorial death match.
What’s amazing about Apple is that the emotional weight of her lyrics does not always dictate the tone of the production, or her cadence, or her vocal mode, whether it be singing, talk-rapping, murmuring, or speaking almost in tongues, Yoko Ono-style. Rather, these all function as independent axes that she manipulates to intersect at odd angles. On “Bolt Cutters,” more than ever, she refracts a lifetime of rage through joyous play and childlike imagination.
But my favorite aspect of “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is how it brings Apple’s house in Venice Beach to life. According to The New Yorker, Apple seldom leaves her home, which she shares with her close friend Zelda Hallman, except to take her dog to the beach. The house serves as a kind of character, or universe, that helps bring “Bolt Cutters” to life. She recorded the album there, on GarageBand, in her un-soundproofed home studio.
Many of the album’s unexpected percussive and ambient textures tell you something about the house and its guests and inhabitants, both sentient and inanimate. There’s Apple playing the trampoline, Apple playing the “metal butterfly,” Apple clapping her hands, tapping out rhythms on her table, and jangling metallic items seemingly sourced from her junk drawer. There’s the actress Cara Delevingne, who stopped by long enough to record cat noises for the title track. There are the five dogs officially credited on the album, whose barks map the rooms of the house via reverb.
The chorus of “Relay” features the repeated phrase, “Evil is a relay sport, when the one who’s burned, turns to pass the torch.” “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” has moments of profound bitterness, but her house doesn’t sound like an angry place at all. It sounds like a sanctuary, a place where she can live and make music on her own terms, as she’s always done.