Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

Exploring Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters

By ELIZA ZIMMERMAN | April 30, 2020

fiona-apple-by-sachyn-mital
Sachyn/CC BY-SA 3.0 Fiona Apple released her fifth album on April 17.

Intense percussion, frank and breathy lyrics, dog barks. Wispy lyrics spoken into silence with no soundtrack to support them. Hoarse growls full of energy and instruments that fall into hysteria, then pick up a new beat and begin once again. This is how Fiona Apple clangs into view on her fifth album Fetch the Bolt Cutters, a powerhouse of intricate rhythm, rising anger and joy. 

With this album, perhaps more than ever, it feels ridiculous to even attempt separating the art from the artist. In releasing Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Apple is bearing herself to a world from which she has mostly kept herself hidden. She has no social media and releases new albums infrequently, especially over the last decade of her career. Her new album has proven to be worth the wait.

Over the course of 50 minutes, Apple dives under the dark undertones of her backtrack, revealing a private, erratic energy that pushes back against years of constant maligning from the music industry and the press who branded her as crazy or spoilt for voicing her struggles with fame. She doesn’t make any bones about it; the clarity of her lyrics makes her message incredibly effective. 

Whether she’s recounting ways of dealing with schoolyard bullies in “Shameika” to deriding the “it girls” who rejected her in “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” or sharing a desperate relationship with love in “I Want You To Love Me” to revealing the ways that her life intersects with other women’s through the absence of men in “Ladies,” Apple is clear and direct, leaving the audience hungered on an emotional landscape that isn’t theirs but feels almost entirely too close. The most telling lyric comes in the album’s fourth song, “Under the Table,” where Apple reminds the listener, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up!”

The most pivotal point while listening to the album was when I began to focus on her commands to the audience and our implication in the narrative she’s spinning. Often she is either directing us to do something specific (such as fetching her a set of bolt cutters), forming us into a collective with her or addressing us as someone from her life with whom she never got the last word. For example, in “Newspaper,” the “you” she speaks to seems interchangeable with the “him” she addresses; at other times we are a means to an end, helping her free herself from constraints, such as when she commands of us, “Fetch the bolt cutters / I’ve been in here too long.”

These devices certainly aren’t new to songwriting, but their frequency and force are surprising. These will never be songs that I can integrate into the back of my mind, play as the backtrack to my own life, place myself into the slot of the narrator and see a way that my experience could fit into the wider schema. I wouldn’t fade into sleep with them, napping in the sun, or put them on a playlist that I reserve for long road trips when I want to imagine my drives through the Southwest as overflowing with the ethos of whatever genre I’ve chosen to identify with that day — bubbly pop, drawling folk and so forth. 

Surprisingly, young Apple was one of those artists whose music fits into a specific mood, at once revolutionary and relatable. She was an effective explicator of the feeling of being too much or a little unhinged as a teenage girl, trying to create a space for yourself that’s just the right size in a vast and complicated world. But it’s been more than 20 years since she wrote the music she first became known for in the ‘90s, and now Apple is not so willing to make her experiences universally palatable. Yes, there are moments of identification with the emotions and events she describes, but everything about these songs is still undeniably and unforgettably her (even Apple’s dogs make their way into the soundtrack, as if we found our way into her mind and sat inside her senses for a day).

This album is definitely worth more than one or two listens. Increasingly, it seems artists are putting out work that requires thorough meditation, now more than ever. I said the same about Bob Dylan’s single “Murder Most Foul” a few weeks ago, mostly due to the fact that the lyrics are at the height of his rambling style. Apple’s is the opposite. Fetch the Bolt Cutters lyrics are clear to the point of being startling, shaking you out of your head and into hers. And yet, there’s always something new waiting under the well-trodden lyrics. It’s a space that’s definitely worth exploring.

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