Life is a mess and the world is a cruel, bewildering place. It can take years to forge a path through the noise — for women especially, there are countless obstacles designed to contain and stifle. But Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” astounds listeners with defiance, clarity and freedom. It’s not often that an album takes my breath away, but this release had me gasping from start to finish. Apple’s fifth studio album, debuting after an eight year hiatus, is unlike anything else out there. With loud, percussive, layered, experimental musings on mental health, insecurity, abuse and the meaning of life, Fetch the Bolt Cutters breaks the mold of music as a whole.
This album is apt for the era of fourth wave feminism. Many of the tracks on the album speak to the convoluted unity among women in a culture that strives to pit them against each other. Apple doesn’t lean into sentimental themes of sisterhood, but rather speaks to those women with whom she cannot connect, or as she puts it in the track “Ladies,” “Yet another woman to whom I won’t get through.”
The tone of these tracks ranges from hilarious to raw, sometimes in the same song. “Ladies” is a comical ode to the women who will date an ex after the relationship has ended. It’s a strange sort of kinship, “There’s a dress in the closet / Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it / I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine / It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine,” Apple quips in one verse.
And in a subversion of the expected competition, Apple frankly states “Nobody can replace anybody else / So it would be a shame to make it a competition / And no love is like any other love / So it would be insane to make a comparison with you.” For anyone who has had the experience of watching an ex move on, this seems like an impossibility. But Apple stands in smug resistance to the cliches of comparison and competition which are hallmarks of a shallow, capitalist and patriarchal status quo.
The album’s titular track, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” also addresses women, but this time the women who kept her in her place, the “VIPs and PYTs and wannabes.” In girlhood, a desire for external validation is a guiding light. Women are told who they are supposed to be, and who they are supposed to compare to, before they know any better: “And I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet / So all I could hear was the noise that / People make when they don’t know shit / But I didn’t know that yet.” But Apple, at the age of 42, boldly looks beyond the passive role that is prescribed for her, no matter what may lie ahead. Anything is better than being limited.
To unapologetically love those you are meant to hate is one of the most valiant modes of opposition, and Apple does it throughout the LP. While she acknowledges the pain caused by the pressures of womanhood and abuse, she refuses to continue the cycle. She speaks to other women firmly but never condescendingly. This is exemplified in the track “Newspaper,” where she addresses the new lover of an abusive ex, or “Relay” which explores existence in a digital age where self-presentation is everything: “I resent you for having each other / I resent you for being so sure / I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure.” With unchained vocals and a healthy dose of anger, this is an anthem of refusal — refusal to feel guilty for her resentment, in unlikely harmony with refusal to perpetuate hatred.
Above all, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is a cathartic exploration of self, and the traumas that shape us. Every track wows, but three standouts include “Shameika,” “Heavy Balloon” and “For Her.” “Shameika,” reads like a mantra which Apple repeats to herself. The track features hurried, rushed piano melodies and breathy, guttural vocalizations which evoke the middle school angst of self-discovery. The air only clears on the line, “Shameika said I had potential.” This mantra steadies the song, and steadies Apple in moments of doubt: “Back then I didn’t know what potential meant / And Shameika wasn’t gentle and she wasn’t my friend but / She got through to me and I’ll never see her again.”
In the track “Heavy Balloon,” Apple explores a battle with depression amidst a complex percussive backdrop, featuring sleigh bells, metallic drums, bass and unidentifiable flurry of rhythmic tapping and pounding. It features some of the most poignant metaphors for depression I have ever heard, and yet, like many other tracks on the album, it is rebellious. Apple is a pillar of strength.
The most grounded, difficult and, frankly, suffocating piece is certainly “For Her.” It is not an easy song to listen to, but it demands to be heard. It opens with a heavy breath and clapped rhythms. The opening verse features a choral arrangement of deceiving levity, as the lyrics chronicle the struggles of women in abusive, oppressive relationships. This track, recorded in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, is teeming with rage. The chorus and the pre-chorus are fleshed out by pounding drums, but the climax of the song, the bridge, is ushered in with a deafening silence followed steady pulse of the woodblock and a single drum: “Good morning, good morning, you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.” In commentary on this track, Apple reflects on the importance of saying the word rape out loud, the key to realizing what victims of sexual assault have suffered. The line makes the listener uncomfortable, and it should. The #MeToo era unites women to bring to light the horrifying reality of the female experience.
From beginning to end, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” pushes the limits and stuns in the process. It looks deep into the psyche and it displays the human soul in a raw defiance to conventions of the pop music industry. It is a fiercely individual triumph and, I predict, one of the best albums 2020 has to offer.
Anna Canny is a junior in the College of Agricultural Life and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].