It’s nice that we can all agree. Fiona Apple’s new album, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, is receiving nearly unprecedented critical praise, and deservedly so. If you’re like me and think of music primarily as a vehicle for personalities and charisma, it is hard for anything to top this. Every song on this album is one that only Fiona Apple could have made, with words that only she would say. The level of detail and specificity in these songs makes the album transcend the idea of confessional songwriting: this isn’t just a little window into Apple’s world, it is her world, and anyone who listens is living in it for its entire duration.
That’s an underrated and increasingly rare trait in art — the idea of the work as a way to deepen your understanding of other people. A lot of Apple’s lyrics on Fetch the Bolt Cutters deal with uncomfortable subjects of abuse and gaslighting at the hands of men, especially the way they impacted her mindset and her friendships with other women. The most jarring moment, on “For Her,” comes after a couple minutes of a fun-sounding ditty when the song stops and Apple matter-of-factly states “Good morning. You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” It’s a far cry from “Sullen Girl” from Tidal, which couched its story of rape in a metaphor about a man taking her pearl and leaving a shell. Now, Apple is comfortable just saying the truth and embracing the harshness of it. On “Newspaper,” she describes a previous partner who caught her up in “his big show” and then began seeing another woman, who Apple felt an unspoken bond with. “I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me to make sure we can never be friends,” she muses, backed by a variety of percussion and backing vocals. “You and I won’t get a witness,” she adds. “We’re the only ones who will ever know.”
But now, through these songs, people will know a little bit, even if they don’t have the specifics. As a man, I realize it looks weird that I’m almost always celebrating the work of women, but part of it is how much I value this aspect of art. I can try to live with empathy and do my best to understand other people with different experiences, but I can’t really know. Albums like Apple’s are the closest you can get to walking in another person’s shoes because of the blunt, vivid truths in her lyrics and the authenticity of her performance. That’s a gift that shouldn’t be taken lightly, and albums like this are why I listen to music.
The lyrics get so much of the attention, but the sound is just as big a part of this. I’ve written a decent amount about The Shaggs, who were untrained sisters who possessed little knowledge or training in music, yet still recorded an album at the behest of their father, which ended up becoming a cult classic. My argument in favor of them was that, while their music sounded unpleasant, there was a pureness and authenticity to it that is almost never heard, because it was made with no desire to impress and contained no references to other music. Fetch the Bolt Cutters is about the closest a trained, talented musician has come to capturing that magic. In every element of these songs, Apple is breaking down the barriers of pretension and performance, until all that’s left is just her voice, her stories and the truth.
The instrumentation is heavily focused on rhythms, with Apple’s familiar piano playing a part along with miscellaneous percussion (which I suspect is just from things lying around her house) and drumming from her friend, Amy Aileen Wood. “Mistakes” are left in the recording, most notably dogs barking in the background (five are credited on the album with “backing barks,” “collar jangles,” and “thrashing”). In the closing track, “On I Go,” Apple can be heard saying “oh fuck, shit!” after presumably screwing up a take. Leaving these in is just another way Fetch the Bolt Cutters reduces the distance between itself and the listener, which, along with the emotional, biographical lyrics, gives it an unparalleled level of intimacy. When I listen to this album, I feel like I know exactly who Fiona Apple is.
Out of all those traits of hers that come through so clearly on Fetch the Boltcutters, my favorite is her intolerance for bullshit, which was made famous in her speech at the 1997 VMAs. It not only makes her likable, but it adds to her work, which benefits from not having slick production, trendy sounds, or any of the other factors that are often associated with quality but make it difficult for listeners to connect with music in a deep way. This is a sophisticated album that was likely obsessed over for a long time, as all of hers are, yet it feels raw and spontaneous because of its loose structure and homemade production, which adds to the visceral power of the lyrics. Apple’s voice is a major part of this, as she almost scat-sings through a lot of the album rather than singing show-offy notes. Her singing feels utilitarian, like all she wants to do is get the truth out as quickly as possible instead of being weighed down by the usual performative flourishes. She has mastered the art of making such effortful music feel organic and achingly real –only an album with this many imperfections could sound so perfect.