More than most artists, each of Fiona Apple’s albums seems to exist on its own. Partly it’s that a gap of years separates each one, so that it inhabits its own niche in time; partly it’s that Apple finds a different approach each time. The elegant teen poetry of Tidal is a world from the tough concision of When the Pawn, which is a world from the big streamlined synths of Extraordinary Machine, which is a world from the pointy chamber pop of The Idler Wheel. In 1996, the context for her debut was the wild success of Jagged Little Pill and the keyboard-swapping virtuosity, alternately fierce, whimsical, and bereft, of Tori Amos, who had just put out Boys for Pele. In the years since, Apple has only become more singular; at the same time, like many people my age, I see her as a peer in my own slow climb through adulthood. Each album teaches you new things about the last: the way the production of Machine foregrounds Questlove’s drumming made it obvious how central rhythm is to Apple’s songwriting, how percussive her use of the piano; her willingness to push her voice to ragged extremes on Idler Wheel made it clear how pop her surface had been to that point. Now, eight years after that album, Apple has released Fetch the Bolt Cutters, and as can happen as you get older, she sounds more herself than ever.
Bolt Cutters has helped me understand why I never fully connected with Idler Wheel: it’s the leap forward that album wasn’t, quite. Listening to it now it sounds quite tidy, despite the shouting and the occasional outré imagery (“the hot piss that comes from your mouth”): each instrument and vocal line carefully separated in the mix, the songwriting observing a dutiful verse/chorus structure. More fundamentally, there’s a lack of thematic development: the protests (in “Left Alone”) that she’s “too hard to know,” are too close to similar protests in “To Your Love” and “Fast as You Can”; the predominance of disappointed love songs too like the albums that preceded it. I thought perhaps she had reached the limit of what she had to say.
On this album Apple opens up exciting possibilities on all three fronts: sonically, in her song writing and subject matter. It’s the product of the seclusion in which she’s lived for a number of years, and the music evokes that domesticity: in the production, which fuses the different instruments into a whole rather than keeping them apart; in the album’s flow, where the songs proper give way to dogs barking or Apple quietly singing to herself, as if making coffee in the morning; in the imagery, where a vanished drum kit leaves a gaping hole in her space. She’s as dogged as Stevie Wonder in mapping out trains of thought, using similar long melodic lines to trace their development – the verses of “I Want You to Love Me” lay out her sense of our aloneness in the universe; a discarded dress in “Ladies” vaults her into the experience of its previous owner. To this she adds a new gift for the punchy phrase that crests suddenly, sticks in your head and distils her meanings: “Shameika said I had potential”; “I would beg to disagree, but begging disagrees with me”; “I spread like strawberries”. (The philosophical musings in “I Want You to Love Me” resolve in a single syllable, that long “you” on the chorus.) This is assisted by her use of repetition: like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, Apple takes a few structural elements – a verse, a chorus, maybe a bridge – and repeats them, using variations in tone, phrasing or arrangement to keep them interesting. It’s the most jazzlike of her albums, and the circular movement of many of the songs creates its own eddying force, drawing you in.
In “Shameika” someone describes Apple as “pissed-off, funny and warm,” and this new music displays that precise emotional palette, a broader one that we’ve seen in the past. The funny in particular is a welcome surprise. Apple does so much with tone here: the shades of affection, facetiousness and resignation that she gets out of the word “ladies”; the fond bemusement as she reflects on her run-ins with the music industry on the title track. It suggests a new level of self-awareness: the pettiness she decries on “Evil” (“I resent you for being raised right/I resent you for being tall”) is hers, in the first instance, and there’s a wryness to “Under the Table” that suggests she knows her intransigence at dinner is a petty victory too. She also turns her gaze outwards more than she ever has before: the empathy for her exes’ other girlfriends on “Newspaper” and “Ladies”; the “people like us” that invites us to identify with her description of mental illness in “Heavy Balloon”; the fact that she empathises so totally with another woman’s experience on “For Her”. This new music feels generous and caring in a way we’ve only seen in flashes before, in songs like “I Know” and “Better Than Fine”; it’s clear, looking back, that Apple’s aggrieved stance has been a limitation on her art, that it’s limited her range of expression. Many people are hearing Fetch the Bolt Cutters as the perfect music for this COVID moment, and it does inspire optimism that Apple’s voluntary seclusion has opened up new possibilities in her music: maybe we too can discover new ways of doing things in our solitude, new capabilities and areas of feeling.