[TW: This article mentions assault and rape.]
You’ve probably heard the buzz about Fiona Apple’s “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” by now. Since its unexpected release on Friday, April 17, the record has garnered unprecedented critical acclaim. It holds a weighted average score of 100 out of 100 on review aggregator website Metacritic, making it the highest rated non-retrospective album in the website’s history; it also received a perfect score from Pitchfork, the first in nearly 10 years. Critics and general audiences alike have already deemed the album the definitive musical statement of the COVID-19 pandemic, of the #MeToo era and of Apple’s career.
Apple hasn’t attracted this much attention in decades. Since 1996, when she achieved household name status at age 18 thanks to her Grammy-winning album “Tidal,” she has experienced a gradual decline in mainstream popularity—partly because of her controversially candid interviews and infamously abrasive acceptance speeches, but also due to her ever-expanding sonic experimentation. Yet the artist’s unwillingness or, rather, inability to conform to the music industry’s constantly shifting expectations of women transformed her career path from that of a burgeoning pop star into that of a revered cult figure. Her meticulous artistic process has produced a slight yet magnificent output of records, each subversive, harrowing and unique. To many, “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is far from Apple’s first masterpiece. So why, after years of relative obscurity, are we finally listening to Fiona Apple again?
“Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is a thrilling fusion of all of Apple’s most alluring qualities—of her electrifyingly brazen treatment of gaslighting and toxicity on “When the Pawn…” (1999), of her playful, irreverent instrumentation on “Extraordinary Machine” (2005), of her sparse, avant-garde exploration of heartbreak and loneliness on “The Idler Wheel…” (2012). She was ahead of her time in all of these projects, writing about trauma and mental illness with a level of honesty that few artists had the courage—or, perhaps, the emotional introspection and lyrical prowess—to approach. Her self-examination challenges the listener, forcing them to confront their most painful moments with similar scrutiny. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” delves even deeper into Apple’s wounds than her past work—but this record, in many ways, came at the perfect time. Maybe in the post-#MeToo world, the public is more receptive to an album with themes of abuse at its core; maybe in the era of social distancing, Apple’s conveyance of loneliness and depression feel more comforting than intimidating.
Apple’s past work always felt grounded in her own present moment—she generally avoided ruminating on the world at large or her own thorny past. In 2000, she told a reporter that she avoided writing about her own rape that occurred at age 12, stating, “It’s a boring pain. It’s such a fuckin’ old pain that, you know, there’s nothing poetic about it” (Q, “Hard Core Pawn,” 03.2000). “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” feels revelatory in that Apple broadens the temporal and political scope of her lyricism for the first time. After opening with the quintessentially aching “I Want You to Love Me,” Apple dives into her experience as a victim of middle-school bullying in “Shameika” and “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” In the latter she reflects, “Sayin’ I’m not stylish enough and I cry too much 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.” It may seem odd for Apple, at 42, to now write about 30-year-old memories. But we all know that the passage of time doesn’t render these wounds irrelevant. Childhood and adolescence are when we shape our self-image, making it a terrifying time to ruminate on—which is likely why few artists address the topic. The album’s title refers to Apple finally interrogating and freeing herself of these ghosts.
And while Apple has never shied away from analyzing toxic relationships, such frank discussion of sexual assault is novel. In “Relay,” Apple revisits a lyric she wrote at age 15 about accountability and forgiveness: “Evil is a relay sport when the one who’s burned turns to pass the torch.” She completed the song as a response to the Kavanaugh hearings, an event that she says allowed her to finally look at her own assault with anger and blame toward her assailant rather than herself and other women. Apple has an unparalleled gift for metaphor, but in this record’s case, the most arresting moments come when she is unflinchingly direct. This is exemplified on “Newspaper,” the album’s chilling centerpiece. Apple sings of her deep connection with the current girlfriend of an abusive partner: “I watch him walk over you, talk over you, be mean to you/And it makes me feel close to you.” But the most striking lyric is obvious. In “For Her,” written on behalf of a fellow victim of assault, she screams, “Good morning/You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in.”
These moments result in a record that is far from easy listening. As Apple previously stated, it’s difficult to say anything “poetic” about assault. But “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” does not shy away from ugliness. It’s for this reason that her latest release is already a cultural touchstone—not every moment is graceful or elegant, but it’s honest. It’s refreshing to hear an artist not cloud these devastating moments with beautiful instrumentation or vocals, but rather reflect their abhorrence.
As with any album declared “perfect” by music critics, there’s naturally some pushback—and especially so with one this experimental and raw. I’m unsure if “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is perfect, or any more so than Apple’s past records, but it is certainly essential. It’s especially essential to women and victims of abuse, many of whom have never heard their stories reflected this masterfully and sincerely. But we can all learn from Apple’s brave, unyielding contemplation of herself, of her relationships and of the world. Without such meditation, it’s impossible to be free.